Back in 1995 when Michael Mann decided to pair Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for his wonderful cops and robbers drama, Heat, he and everyone else were already fully aware of the legendary status of his two main actors. That is why he wisely used their great talents to dig deeper into the motivations and impulses that drive the cops and criminals to do their profession and how one side almost needs the other to create their own sealed universe. The two veteran actors’ latest pairing, Righteous Kill sadly only starts seeming to be about the personalities and motivations until it settles for a mere whodunit.
In other words, like last year’s disappointing The Bucket List, which coupled Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman for the first time, this is a film that just tries to glide on the thespians’ personas rather than expanding on them. Having the two veterans as world-weary cop partners could yield a greater examination of the lifelong frustration with the crime-ridden streets and a justice system that often cannot rectify them. The screenplay by Russell Gewirtz (who last penned the overrated Inside Man) and the direction by Jon Avnet (who directed Pacino in the bomb, 88 Minutes earlier this year) are alas never that ambitious.
There is, of course, the pleasure of watching De Niro and Pacino playing, respectively, Turk and Rooster, cops whom others in the police force deem inseparable like Lennon and McCartney. They deal day in and day out with trying to clean out the scum of the streets, although they are far from clean themselves as they occasionally break the rules of police work such as planting evidence on an acquitted criminal and framing him for another. Their superior, Lt. Hingis (Brian Dennehy) seems to overlook much of that, although he has ordered them to see a police psychiatrist after their recent police brutality towards drug dealer, Spider (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson).
They are particularly dismayed when they witness the acquittal of a child rapist and murderer who has gotten away scot-free. The very next day, however, the two cops find that he has been murdered. Soon thereafter they encounter a slew of murders of other criminals and low-lifes, always with the same silenced gun and a rhyming poem left nearby. While working with younger fellow detectives on the case, Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino), Simon Perez (John Leguizamo) and Ted Riley (Donnie Wahlberg) as well as facing animosity from the latter two, the two veteran cops try to figure out who may be the culprit, all while the other cops start pointing fingers at Turk.
Considering the movie opens with what looks like a taped confession spoken directly to the camera (much like the opening narration from Clive Owen in Inside Man) and that Pacino’s character surmises that it is a cop committing these serial killings, I personally wished the story could have delved into a more psychological examination of a police officer who is pushed to the extremes of vigilantism due to their frustrating incapacity to put enough dirty criminals behind bars. Then at least it would not be a detriment that I could already guess the ending just from one rather gimmicky telltale sign of the opening sequence. The screenplay contorts to throw in red herrings whenever it can (as well as some rather creepily kinky scenes involving Gugino’s penchant for liking it rough with De Niro’s Turk) but its foreshadowing is all too obvious in its execution. And since there is almost never an unnecessary character in most any thriller like this, finding the killer is just another exercise akin to counting the people down in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, something I am now getting tired and bored of in thrillers at this point.
Because the movie has somehow assembled a mostly top-flight cast, it serves as a contra-positive example of how, despite that the acting is often the last thing to go wrong, most any good movie really starts from the written word. Needless to say, De Niro and Pacino have a watchable on-screen chemistry exchanging wisecrack dialogue and banter after having played numerous past cop roles (as well as criminals) that many real cops may have likely patterned their behavior after. On the other hand, everyone here including Leguizamo and Dennehy is acting within their comfortable niche (except for Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson who really needs to take acting lessons to carve out his niche) and so there is nothing that is challenging the thespians or the viewers.
Righteous Kill marks just the third movie that puts De Niro and Pacino together (although the first one in 1974, The Godfather, Part II may not really count since their respective father and son portrayals were not even in the same time frame) and the first one in which they actually share the screen throughout the whole movie. The filmmakers sadly cannot even fully utilize this thespian arsenal as well as Michael Mann did in just the two great, memorable scenes he allowed the veterans to share in Heat (and no one can forget that coffee shop scene in which the cop and robber talk about their lines of work). Much is being said about how Hollywood is running out of ideas these days and one sign of that may be in movies like Righteous Kill, which merely ape off our knowledge and memories of living screen legends rather than coming up with fresh, creative directions for them.
Bottom line: Mediocre at best.