Robert De Niro and Al Pacino—both originally from New York City, both about the same age, both made their film debut around the same time, and both considered legends among American actors. Yet it's taken them this long in their 40-year careers to finally star in a film together.
Oh sure, they've been in the same movie before. There was The Godfather, Part II back in 1974, but they never actually shared any screen time. Then there was Heat in 1995, but they only had two scenes together, one with dialogue.
So at last there's Righteous Kill, though the crime drama wasn't originally intended for both aging veterans. De Niro's co-star was meant to be a younger cop to play off his older partner, but De Niro suggested Pacino, and the part was rewritten slightly. Naturally, director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes, Red Corner) and screenwriter Russell Gewirtz (Inside Man) were game, and why not? Movie fans want to this movie to succeed for its iconic pairing.
Alas, here's proof again that a strong cast alone is not enough to make a strong movie. Keep in mind that both actors have been sliding for years now. Anyone see De Niro in Hide and Seek? Painful. Or Pacino in 88 Minutes (also directed by Avnet)? Equally bad. Righteous Kill aspires to the gritty cop dramas from Sidney Lumet in the '70s, as well as the nebulous noir of Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects, but it struggles to rise above direct-to-video fare.
Here's betting most viewers won't know what to make of Righteous Kill, because it never really settles into a groove for the first reel. The choppy editing of the opening credits attempt to set this up as a buddy cop film, like Tango & Cash meets Grumpy Old Men. NYPD detectives David "Turk" Fisk (De Niro) and Thomas "Rooster" Cowan (Pacino) shoot target practice together, they work out together, they catch the bad guys, they joke—the best of friends, they're all cop and all New York.
Then the film takes an odd twist. With shades of Clive Owen's opening from Inside Man, we see Internal Affairs viewing grainy video footage of Turk confessing that he's the one responsible for a recent series of vigilante killings, targeting criminals acquitted of murder, drug dealing, and other crimes. Yet as we hear the confession (presumably present day), we also see Turk and Rooster on the job leading a drug bust (days or weeks before?). Bits and pieces of Turk's confession are sprinkled throughout the first half, usually accompanying the murders as they happen, along with the four-line poem that the killer leaves as a calling card with each victim.
Clearly everything is not as it seems. Either the film is admitting that Turk is the bad guy from the start, or else someone is framing him. Or maybe it's someone in a really good De Niro mask. Or maybe we're meant to think Turk is being framed when he really is the bad guy. Loaded with misdirection, it's a play off the conventional catch-the-killer cop movie, where we determine the identity of the bad guy by also questioning the identity of the good guy.
Intriguing? It could have been with a better script and more likable characters. But a shadow is cast over our two heroes from the beginning when we learn that they planted evidence to ensure an acquitted child killer would go to prison. With that motive in play, we know that either Turk or Rooster could be the culprit from the get go. If that weren't enough, Turk is having kinky rough sex with forensics expert Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino) on the side, and the two veterans are teamed with two younger detectives (played by Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo) who are even less likable. Many viewers won't find enough of a rooting interest in any of these characters to care what happens.
Many story details play out far too conventionally. The failed drug bust that becomes a shootout, the renegade cops chewed out by the gruff police lieutenant (Brian Dennehy), and oh yes, there's even the pedophile priest who gets his comeuppance as one of the killer's victims. (Seriously, Hollywood writers, can you be any less imaginative and more unfair to the church?)
It also doesn't help that the story gets sidetracked by a lot of unnecessary details, such as the rough sex with Corelli, red herrings that disappear as quickly as they appear, and a subplot involving a young coke-sniffing lawyer (Trilby Glover) that goes absolutely nowhere. But there are enough small clues sprinkled throughout that attract so much attention to themselves, they confirm the identity of the killer—by mid-film, I knew who was responsible, what their motive was, and how it would be revealed. There's just nothing very subtle about the movie's mystery.
Which leaves us with our two central actors, and admittedly, they do play well off of each other, but then we knew that going in. There are a couple of sweetly affecting scenes between Pacino and De Niro, particularly an exchange in a restaurant where the cops express their admiration to each other. But more often than not, Pacino is doing his usual overacting, De Niro his underacting, neither doing more than what we've seen from them in better movies.
Righteous Kill is diverting because of the leads and a somewhat tricky storyline that does offer some payoff, but getting there is awfully frustrating at times. Especially when we've seen similar stories done better, and know that these actors have done better. As far as De Niro-Pacino interaction, I'll take five minutes of Heat to a hundred minutes of Righteous Kill any day.
>Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What does Righteous Kill say about our justice system? Is it typical for people to be wrongfully accused and convicted by cops? Or is it saying criminals are too often acquitted on technicalities? What does the Bible say about submitting to authority and the law? (See Romans 13)
- What about the notion of justice? Is it right for people to take justice into our own hands outside of the law? Is that disobeying God's will or is it carrying out his will?
- One of the cops says he loses his faith as a result of a criminal being acquitted. Why do you suppose his faith is affected in that way? Do you believe it takes more faith to act in justice or to wait patiently for God's justice?
- What's your opinion of Turk by the film's end? Is he a good cop, or "a righteous man" as one character puts it? Is our opinion shaped at all by other characters who admire him most?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Righteous Kill is rated R for violence, pervasive language, some sexuality, and brief drug use. The violence involves some shootings and beatings, and there's a brief shot of a child corpse, but there's nothing graphic overall. However, since this is a movie about New York cops starring De Niro and Pacino, the pervasive language should come as no surprise—f-bombs seem to drop every minute. A few rough sex scenes involving De Niro and Gugino are graphic and excessive, even though there's no nudity involved. Also, a young woman is briefly shown snorting heroin or cocaine, and there's a pedophile priest in a brief subplot, though there's no depiction of any pedophilia.
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