Director : Jon Avnet
Screenplay : Russell Gewirtz
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Robert De Niro (Turk), Al Pacino (Rooster), Curtis Jackson (Spider), Carla Gugino (Karen Corelli), John Leguizamo (Det. Simon Perez), Donnie Wahlberg (Det. Ted Riley), Brian Dennehy (Lieutenant Hingis), Trilby Glover (Jessica), Saidah Arrika (Gwen Darvis), Alan Rosenberg (Stein), Sterling K. Brown (Rogers), Barry Primus (Prosky)
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, the graying dramatic titans of the New American Cinema, have appeared in only three of the same films, which form a rather depressing pattern that is quite the opposite of what you might expect: The more time they spend on screen together, the worse the film. They first appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974), one of the great films of the ’70s and perhaps the greatest sequel of all time, yet they were never on screen at the same time. Just over 20 years later, they shared a single scene of Michael Mann’s solid crime epic Heat (1995). Another 13 years have since passed, and now De Niro and Pacino share almost every scene in Jon Avnet’s Righteous Kill, a derivative and increasingly silly crime thriller.
Sadly, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise because both De Niro and Pacino have been on a slide lately, cashing paychecks for movies that wouldn’t have even gotten to their desks in the years when pairing them on-screen would have really meant something. While there have been a few bright flashes in recent years (Pacino’s send up of his own hoo-ah! in Ocean’s Thirteen, De Niro’s comical turn as a gay pirate in Stardust), they have both headlined their share of duds, with Pacino’s most egregious offense being 88 Minutes, also directed by Avnet and released in such recent memory that it threatens to taint anything good about Righteous Kill.
Unfortunately--or perhaps fortunately--there isn’t much worth tainting, including the largely phoned-in performances by the two leads that do more to suggest a kind of sluggish adherence to type than any attempt to generate real, lived-in chemistry. Scripted by Russell Gewirtz, who penned the far superior Spike Lee bank heist thriller Inside Man (2006), Righteous Kill casts De Niro and Pacino as old-school New York homicide detectives Turk and Rooster, who have worked together for decades and know each other inside and out. Turk has a hot temper and tends to glower a lot while Rooster is the more observant and reflective half of the duo, pouring his time into chess matches and praying at the local Catholic church.
The plot twists itself around a series of vigilante murders that snuff out the lives of gun dealers, pimps, drug pushers, and rapists who constantly beat the rap. Early on in the film, literally minutes after the over-edited, hyper-directed opening credits sequence, we see what appears to be video footage of De Niro’s Turk admitting to these killings. Throughout the film we cut back to this video confession, which even the least discerning of viewers will immediately question given the fact that Avnet studiously avoids ever showing the killer’s face during the film’s numerous murders. Sure, Turk admits to them, and he has the kind of hot temper and apparent lack of self-control that might lead to extralegal killing, but if it’s so obviously him, why all the cloak-and-dagger aesthetics?
Thus, the film’s big twist is literally mapped out from the get-go, with little potential for surprise in revealing the killer’s true identity (by the end it’s breathtakingly obvious). Along the way Avnet bides his time with various subplots, including a pair of younger and competitive homicide detectives (John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg) who are convinced that Turk is the killer and enlist the help of Rooster to catch him; a club-owning drug dealer (Curtis Jackson) who tends to cause Turk’s already overheated anger-management issues to boil over; and Turk’s girlfriend Karen (Carla Gugino), a crime-scene investigator whose predilection for violent sex bordering on rape fantasy makes her more creepy than intriguing.
As he proved in 88 Minutes, there is nothing that Jon Avnet can’t overdirect, and while he tends to back off when the two 800-pound gorillas are sharing a scene, he can’t help but drive up the overkill in the downtimes, giving us needlessly showy flashbacks that typically contain information we long since figured out for ourselves. While there is no doubt that the prospect of seeing De Niro and Pacino truly sharing the screen is intrinsically attention-grabbing, Righteous Kill just proves that even two of the finest actors of their generation can’t elevate mediocre material and instead get dragged down by it.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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