Home Movies Movie Lists

Robert De Niro’s Best, Worst and Craziest Performances

From ‘Raging Bull’ to ‘Rocky & Bullwinkle’

Robert De Niro

Resolved: Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors of all time.

Also resolved: For the past decade or so, Robert De Niro has been appearing in a lot of movies that don’t necessarily make the best use of his talents. Indeed, when one looks at the broad arc of his career, it’s hard not to notice the high concentration of masterpieces in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties — and the sheer drop-off that occurs once his career hits the aughts. That said, who can blame a guy for wanting to mix things up once in a while? If he tried to pull a Raging Bull every other movie, he’d probably die — literally.

Which De Niro will we get in this week’s The Intern, a comedy in which the actor plays a 70-year-old retiree who becomes an intern for a hot new fashion e-commerce company run by Anne Hathaway? That remains to be seen: Something tells us we’re not in Vito Corleone territory, but let’s not forget that De Niro has been known to triumph in mainstream comedies from time to time. In the meantime, we decided to look at De Niro’s filmography – that’s more than 95 movies, by the way – and suss out truly Good (the great performances that will forever define his career and stand as testaments to the power of acting), the genuinely Bad (the paycheck gigs, the flops, and the just plain awful decisions), and, well, the Ugly — those De Niro performances that are too strange, too out there to classify as either across-the-board Good or Bad.

And for the last time: Yes, we are, in fact, talkin’ to you.

ph

Good: ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976)

One of the greatest American films ever made, and one of the greatest screen performances ever given. For all of Martin Scorsese's stylization in this film — think of those demonic plumes of steam, those grotesque streets, those tense, militaristic montages — it's so clear that he's basically handed the reins over to De Niro. As Travis Bickle, "God's lonely man," a Vietnam vet who takes a job driving cabs by night, the actor has to perform an unholy bait-and-switch: He has to win us over, make us relate to him, and then slowly let his psyche unravel while still keeping us watching. By the time Travis has gone completely thermonuclear, we're so invested in his character that it's like a part of us has gone mad as well. BE

ph

Bad: ‘Showtime’ (2002)

Anyone wondering what De Niro looks like when he can't even bring himself to pretend to care about a part? Look no further than this buddy-cop movie that pairs him with Eddie Murphy, in which the actor plays a veteran detective who gets paired with the comedian's fame-seeking hotshot for a reality show. The film's sole clever bit involves bringing in William Shatner, as himself, to help teach De Niro's character how to act. It might have been funnier if Shatner didn't seem far more engaged with the material than his co-star. KP

ph

Ugly: ‘Cape Fear’ (1991)

De Niro packed on the muscles and perfected a Southern accent for this big, broad turn as ex-con and murderer Max Cady, newly released from prison and ready to make his lawyer (or, rather, his "cooouunnseeeluuuuh") Nick Nolte suffer for not properly representing him. Yet another Scorsese collaboration – but this remake of an old Sixties suspense flick is far from the world of mob rituals or submerged existential psychoses. Rather, it's a sweaty, deliberately overbaked movie, dripping with atmosphere. De Niro's performance is strange, off-putting, almost comically broad – but also kind of perfect for the sleazy, unhinged tone of this thriller. BE

ph

Good: ‘Raging Bull’ (1980)

De Niro's Oscar-winning role as self-destructive pugilist Jake LaMotta is the stuff of Method-acting legend: He sculpted his body and trained rigorously to mirror the prizefighter's exploits in the ring. Then the star packed on 60 pounds to play LaMotta as a washed-up, grotesque shell of his former self, mining his fading celebrity for jokes. But De Niro's physical transformation alone can't account for the greatness of his performance, which is like a burbling cauldron of jealousy, resentment, and self-hatred. The same forces that make heavyweight champ an explosive athlete inside the ring eat him alive when he's outside of it, and the actor treats him like a man imprisoned by his own psyche. ST

ph

Bad: ‘The Family’ (2013)

You'd think that a crime comedy in which Robert De Niro plays a mob snitch forced to relocate to France with his family under the Witness Protection Program would be an easy win for the actor, right? Right?!? But the weird tonal mishmash of Luc Besson's ludicrously violent, overcooked, and not particularly-funny laffer gets the best of the actor. And Michelle Pfeiffer, playing his bored, hair-trigger wife, acts circles around him. BE

ph

Ugly: ‘Brazil’ (1985)

De Niro has a relatively small role in Terry Gilliam's dystopian masterpiece about a society drowning under comical, murderous levels of bureaucracy. But it's a doozy: He plays a former air conditioning repairman and wanted outlaw who joined the Resistance after having to deal with too much paperwork. As such, he gets to do decidedly un-De Niro-ish things like swoop in on wires and get swept away in a tornado of paper. It's a bizarre role, but he brings a level of welcome playfulness to it. BE

ph

Good: ‘The Godfather Part II’ (1974)

For this Oscar-winning gangster movie — the capo di tutti capi of sequels — De Niro had to give a convincing answer to a difficult question: How did a poor, sickly immigrant from Sicily grow into the scion of the Corleone crime family? His fresh-faced Vito represents a dark parallel to the classic American success story, a first-generation entrepreneur who scrapes and claws — and, in his case, kills — for every patch of territory. He grows into the character Marlon Brando plays in the first Godfather, but De Niro's performance suggests that you can't become the man behind the desk without getting your hands dirty first. ST

ph

Bad: ‘What Just Happened’ (2008)

It's often De Niro's job to be the still, calm center of a movie — an acting choice that might have made sense for this adaption of producer Art Linson's Hollywood memoir, which surrounds him with show business craziness on all sides. Instead, De Niro, playing a fictionalized Linson for director Barry Levinson, goes loud and demonstrative, making the character seem almost as unhinged as those around him. What just happened, indeed. KP

ph

Ugly: ‘Awakenings’ (1990)

Acting challenges don't get much harder than playing characters with neurological conditions, and if Awakenings doesn't feature one of De Niro's very best performances it certainly features what must have been one of his most difficult. His Leonard Lowe is a man who revives from decades-long catatonic state thanks to an experimental treatment administered by Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams, playing a fictionalized version of Oliver Sacks, who wrote the memoir on which it's based). De Niro is convincing as both a catatonic and as a man in the grips of tics and spasms as the treatment starts to fail. It's hard to watch largely because he makes it seem so uncomfortably real. KP

ph

Good: ‘Mean Streets’ (1973)

Maybe age and three Meet The Parents movies have softened De Niro to such an extent that it's easy to forget the attributes that made him such a sensation in the first: He was wired, spontaneous, dangerous. As Johnny Boy in his first of many storied collaborations with director Martin Scorsese, the future greatest-actor-of-his-generation is introduced casually tossing a bomb into a mailbox; later, he strolls into a bar with a girl under each arm, to "Jumpin' Jack Flash." For his buddy Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a small-time gangster looking to climb the ladder, Johnny Boy is the quick-burning fuse he can't stamp out, but De Niro plays him as carefree and bulletproof. He's too confident to acknowledge his recklessness. ST

ph

Bad: ’15 Minutes’ (2001)

Maybe De Niro was drawn to this tedious thriller because he liked the blunt social commentary of the premise: Two young Eastern European mobsters film their New York crime-spree and sell the tapes to a tabloid TV show. But during his heyday, the actor almost never took a role as nondescript as the arrogant cop he plays here. Writer-director John Herzfeld tries to toy with his star's screen image a little — even throwing in a scene where he talks to himself in a mirror, Taxi Driver/Raging Bull-style — but  any middle-aged movie star could've done this part. Even worse than straight-up bad De Niro? Boring De Niro. NM

ph

Ugly: ‘The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle’ (2000)

Scripted by Kenneth Lonergan, this adaptation of Jay Ward's witty animated series contains more clever touches than it got credit for at the time. But it's frequently undone by over-the-top performances from the human villains played by Jason Alexander, Rene Russo, and De Niro (who also co-produced). To be fair, you can't really accuse the Oscar-winning actor of being cartoonish here — as he's actually playing a cartoon character. Still, the moment in which De Niro, as the monocle-sporting Fearless Leader revisits his "Are you talking to me?" monologue from Taxi Driver pretty much defines the word "nadir." KP

ph

Good: ‘Heat’ (1995)

"Don't let yourself get attached to anything you're not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." That's the mantra that guides De Niro's professional thief in Michael Mann's epic crime drama, and it's also the mantra that dictates his performance — cool, distant, calculating, and assertive only when it needs to be. Though his character is written as the yin-and-yang flipside to Al Pacino's tempestuous detective, De Niro isn't all steely reserve. No one can live that perfectly detached, so when a loose cannon causes a job to go south or the right woman sidles up next to him at a diner, his meticulous planning goes out the window. His thief works diligently to a higher standard, but the actor subtly reveals the hairline cracks in the armor. ST

ph

Bad: ‘The Big Wedding’ (2013)

There are lame romantic comedies, and then there's Hindenburg of a movie, in which De Niro and Diane Keaton play exes who pretend to still be married for their adopted son's wedding to an extremely devout Catholic. (Long story, but no, it doesn't make much sense in the movie either.) Guess whose relationship is rekindled? Wackiness ensues…except that it doesn't, given that this is totally generic, predictable, middle-of-the-road goo. It's one of the worst films De Niro has made in recent years – all the more frustrating because he actually makes an effort to give some life to the script's tired, unfunny jokes. BE

ph

Ugly: ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ (1994)

Kenneth Branagh's histrionic adaptation of the classic Gothic horror novel goes all the way to 11: It's so over-the-top, so stylized, and so filled with booming, scenery-chewing performances that you kind of can't help but admire it – even though it's never, ever convincing. And De Niro, as "The Creation" (aka Frankenstein's Monster), is actually quite touching as a broken half-man aware of his existential predicament. The disconnect between his quiet pathos and the rest of the film's manic energy is distracting, though bonus points to whoever did his stitched-together-from-corpses make-up job. BE

ph

Good: ‘The Untouchables’ (1987)

One of De Niro's greatest roles is also one of the few times he played a criminal without trying to lend him any nuance or humanity. As a tubby, preening, big-talking Al Capone, our man Bob is both monstrous and comical, like a character out of one of the mobster's beloved operas. But what comes through most in the performance is contempt: This is a man who thinks very little of everyone around him. It's perfect for the movie, too; the more ruthless Capone seems, the more we root for Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness to do everything he can to bring him down "the Chicago way." It's a performance of shockingly urgent villainy. BE

ph

Bad: ‘Red Lights’ (2012)

In this unconvincing, nonsensical thriller, Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver play paranormal investigators who specialize in uncovering hoaxes perpetrated by people alleging to have experienced supernatural occurrences. De Niro plays a famous blind psychic who might turn out to be the real deal. He camps it up like nobody's business, which actually seems to be a wise decision given the sheer ridiculousness of this film. Alas, everyone else seems to be taking everything very seriously — which just leaves the Oscar-winning star choking on the chewed-up scenery. BE

ph

Ugly: ‘We’re No Angels’ (1989)

Funny thing: Director Neil Jordan's much-derided Christmas comedy about two hoodlums (De Niro and Sean Penn) hiding out as priests in a town near the Canadian border is not as bad as its reputation. (This is an atmospheric Neil Jordan movie with a screenplay by David Mamet, based on a Humphrey Bogart classic – really, that's worth something right there.) It is, however, a very strange film, not the least of which is because of all the relentless over-acting of its two leads. One senses that De Niro in particular is trying to channel the spirit of Bogie, complete with old-school tough-guy affectations. (That voice!) But the result isn't so much funny as it is straight-up surreal. BE