There are certain moments in cinema that stand out as being truly iconic. Sometimes it’s a line of dialogue that goes on to become a revered quote – other times it’s a scene, or a song or even the opening credits (see: Star Wars).

However, sometimes an iconic moment in cinema is achieved with nothing more than the presence of the actors onscreen – a moment where the context, history and personality the actors bring to the table transcends the actual movie itself. Moments where life supersedes art, yet still moves us in the way great art does.

This summer’s action movie throwback, The Expendables, is trying to cash in on the thrill of seeing some of action’s greatest badasses – Stallone, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Statham, Li, Lundgren – trading fists, knives and bullets. For me, no scene in cinema has sizzled hotter than seeing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro talk cops and robbers in that now-famous diner scene from Heat. Sometimes, when the right screen icons come face-to-face in a scene, the moment turns electric.

Despite what you ultimately thought of Iron Man 2, the film did have one such “electric moment,”  shared between acting powerhouses and recent comeback kids, Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr.


The ’80s

In the 80s, both Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr. hit the acting scene and were quickly dubbed two of the best young actors of their generation. Rourke arrived first, gaining notice with a small role in Steven Spielberg’s 1979 film 1941; he then (literally) blew up into the big time after portraying an arsonist in the 1981 erotic thriller Body Heat, alongside William Hurt and Kathleen Turner.

Rourke went on to make his mark with roles in Diner (1982), Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 followup to The Outsiders), and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), amongst other films. However, it was Rourke’s steamy onscreen seduction of Kim Basinger in 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) that catapulted him from being a rising talent to a full-blown ’80s leading man heartthrob. And so began his downward spiral.

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Rourke and Basinger in 9 1/2 Weeks

Robert Downey Jr. was born in New York as the son of two performers. He got his start in the ’70s by acting in his father’s films, while receiving the type of prestigious NYC acting schooling you would almost expect of someone with his background. When he hit his twenties Downey Jr. broke out on his own, spending a brief year as a member of SNL (1985-86), gaining acclaim during the “Brat Pack” era starring as the bully in John Hughes’ Weird Science (1985), and then teaming with 80s teen icon Molly Ringwald in The Pick-up Artist (1987).

By the time Rourke starred in Alan Parker’s voodoo mystery thriller Angel Heart (1987) alongside Robert De Niro, he was already on the outs with his acting career. At odds with his heartthrob image, Rourke started to take on grittier roles in films like Barfly (1987) and Homeboy (1988), a movie he wrote and starred in, which centered on his other passion…boxing.

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Downey in Less Than Zero

Critics started to take real notice of  Robert Downey Jr. when he gave a stirring  performance as a drug addict rich kid in the adaptation of author Brent Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero (1987). Ironically enough, Downey’s character in Zero would embody the very downward spiral that the actor would eventually be sucked into.  He soon got roles in bigger films, like Air America with Mel Gibson (1990) and the ensemble film Soapdish (1990) alongside Sally Field, Whoopi Goldberg and other big names in the business.

The ’90s

As the ’80s crossed over into the ’90s Mickey Rourke stepped back from acting and resumed his career as an amateur boxer. While he had a fairly good record (undefeated in eight fights, six wins, two KO’s and two draws), the physical toll of the sport put a serious strain on Rourke’s health. During this same tumultuous time, Rourke had run-ins with the law for everything from domestic abuse to DUI’s, trading his leading man image for that of a reckless and volatile bad boy.

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Downey in Chaplin

It was in 1992 that Downey officially became a sensation in the acting world, thanks to his Oscar-nominated turn as Charlie Chaplin in the biopic Chaplin. After that soaring height, many roles were tossed Downey’s way, including Natural Born Killers (1994), Richard III (1995), and Restoration (1995). It was during this highpoint of his blossoming career that Downey fell into the substance abuse problems that have plagued so many actors raised in the limelight.

In 1996, Downey was the subject of big controversy after being arrested for possession of heroin, cocaine and an unloaded Magnum .357 while speeding down Sunset Boulevard. From 1996-1999 the actor was arrested multiple times for drug-related offenses, while still managing to put impressive work up on the screen – The Gingerbread Man (1998),  U.S. Marshals (1998) and In Dreams (1999). Downey ended the ’90s with a high-profile trial, which ended with him being sentenced to a three-year term at a prison/rehab clinic.

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Rourke in Bullet

As Downey was ending the Millennium facing prison, Mickey Rourke was slowly making his way back into acting. Some of his roles were under-appreciated (the 1996 film Bullet that Rourke wrote and starred in with Tupac Shakur); other roles were flops (Another 9 1/2 Weeks, Double Team, Point Blank) and others showed glimpses of the Mickey Rourke who had shown so much promise in the 80s (John Grisham’s The Rainmaker, Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66).

Downey and Rourke’s comebacks in the new Millennium…

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The 2000s

As the new Millennium was offering new opportunity to Rourke, Downey also caught a break: a judge determined that the total stint of prison time the actor had served since his 1996 arrest qualified him for early release, and he was set free on $5,000 bail. A week later he joined the cast of Ally McBeal, playing the love interest of the titular character, a role which brought back the acclaim and awards (an Emmy nom and Golden Globe win) to a career which had long been overshadowed by scandal. The upswing was short-lived, however: Downey was again arrested for substance abuse in 2001, which caused him to be dismissed from Ally McBeal and marked him as a liability with many producers and studios in Tinsel Town.

It was in the new Millennium that Rourke truly stole the screen again, with parts in Steve Buscemi’s prison drama Animal Factory (2000), Stallone’s Get Carter remake (2000) and most notably with a brief appearance as “The Cook” in the 2002 meth-head indie film Spun, which went on to become a cult-hit. That string of minor but important roles in the early 2000s led to a new age of filmmakers re-discovering Mickey Rourke. Soon Rourke was getting bigger parts in bigger pictures, like Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time in Mexico (2003) and Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (2004). The Rourke/Rodriguez bond was particularly strong, and the acclaimed director cast Rourke as the iconic anti-hero Marv in the big-screen adaptation of Frank Miller’s cult-classic comic book, Sin City.

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Rourke as Marv in Sin City

Rourke’s universally-lauded performance as Marv signaled to the world that the down-and-out ’80s icon had clawed his way back. The parts kept on coming thereafter, culminating with Rourke’s Oscar-nominated role as a battered (but not broken) sports entertainer in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008). That close-to-home performance firmly cemented Rourke’s comeback and opened up the lane of blockbuster films to him, most recently as villain Ivan Vanko in the mega-blockbuster sequel, Iron Man 2.

By the mid-2000s, Downey was finally ready to get his life in order. With support from family and friends the actor got serious about rehab – though his return to film was a bit more difficult since so many execs in the industry now considered him a liability. Help came from an ironic source: In 2003, Mel Gibson paid Downey’s insurance bond for The Signing Detective, and after Downey successfully wrapped that film without incident, producer Joel Silver cast him in the Halle Berry thriller Gothika that same year. Soon after Gothika Downey was cast in several independent films, including Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007).

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Downey in Tropic Thunder

As Mickey Rourke was wowing critics in 2008 with The Wrestler, Downey was smashing the box office wide open as the titular hero in Marvel Studio’s big-screen adaptation of Iron Man. That same year Downey was nominated for another Academy Award, this time for the comedy spoof Tropic Thunder. Both Downey and Rourke were major presences at the 2008 Oscars – and although neither man walked away with the trophy they were both considered winners: Hollywood officially had two of its best and brightest back at the top.


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By now you should already realize just what an iconic moment it was in Iron Man 2 when Tony Stark (Downey) and the villainous Ivan Vanko (Rourke) battled it out on a Monaco Formula 1 speedway. Even more electric than that CGI-heavy fight sequence was the following scene, where Stark meets Vanko face-to-face in a prison cell.

The scene is brief, but in it we see two of acting’s most gifted, troubled, disgraced and redeemed performers trading dramatic sparks. An interesting note: Downey reportedly “begged” Rourke to join Iron Man 2 – he wanted an actor of serious talent to face off against in the super-powered sequel, and Rourke was supposedly the one name he had in mind. Talk about kindred spirits.

We are fortunate that both of these fantastic actors managed to survive their personal tribulations and demons in order to continue entertaining us with their incredible talents. Despite the problems I had with Iron Man 2, the fact that these two lions shared the screen is reason enough for me to cherish the movie. Truly an iconic moment in cinema.

I’ll leave things there. Below are two clips of Robert Downey Jr. and Mickey Rourke onscreen together in Iron Man 2. Enjoy the clips and tell us what you think about this iconic moment in cinema in our comment section.

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