Dir: Jon Avnet. US. 2008. 100 mins.
Screen legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino team up with director Jon Avnet in Righteous Kill, a thinly-sketched, utterly pedestrian cop thriller that pivots on a very predictable twist ending. An unworthy vehicle for its stars' talents, the movie plays like an episodic small screen crime serial lazily blown up for the big screen.
Following on the heels of Pacino's 88 Minutes, another Avnet-helmed thriller from prolific producer Avi Lerner, Righteous Kill seems to owe its entire existence to 1995's crime drama Heat, which did nearly two-thirds of its $187 million gross internationally, and spawned a fetishistic celebration of the six-minute diner scene between the pair of stars, cast as wary adversaries. This lies at the crux of Righteous Kill's marketing, but poor word-of-mouth should relegate the movie to low- to mid-eight-figure grosses domestically, and the back end of the DVD shelf. Internationally, the re-teaming angle may work better, at least initially.
The film opens with black-and-white footage of a confession to 14 slayings, and then winds its way back an indeterminate amount of time, introducing Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) as two veteran New York City cops. The long-time partners share some sympathies with a vigilante killer, The Poetry Boy, who's offing pimps, murderers and other thugs who otherwise beat the legal system, and leaved calling cards of rhymed composition at the crime scenes. Turk and Rooster start investigating drug dealer Marcus 'Spider' Smith (rapper 50 Cent, ne Curtis Jackson), but get pulled into the serial killer case.
A hard-edged forensic specialist, Karen Corelli (Gugino), helps out with some crime scene analysis; complicating factors is her relationship with Turk. Two junior detectives, Perez and Riley (Leguizamo and Wahlberg), are also brought in to work with the wily veterans. They quickly come to suspect that the killer is a cop -- maybe even Turk, who seems overly eager to knock down any theories that the Poetry Boy has a badge.
Watching Righteous Kill feels like a trip back in time right into the middle of some anonymous, straight-to-video thriller from the 1980s. There's no pop to the pacing, no intrigue or slickness to the homicidal stagings. In short, there's no excitement here, or legitimate tension.
The film's indistinct screenplay, by Russell Gewirtz (Inside Man), offers up thin characterisations, which on a certain level at least makes its eventual reversals play more smoothly. The relationship between Turk and Karen, who's into rough sexual roleplay, is especially baffling in its cursoriness, and the junior detectives - integral to driving the investigatory plot, and thus Turk's increasing agitation - aren't given enough front-and-centre time.
Older but tanner and slimmer than his counterpart, Pacino is more subdued than in many of his recent films. De Niro, meanwhile, trades in moderately restrained variations of moves we've seen in some of his previous hothead characters. Even if familiar, there is certainly a residual trace affection from seeing the two exercise their craft in the same frame, but Righteous Kill slowly drains that thrill away.
Nu Image/Millennium Films
Daniel M. Rosenberg
Robert De Niro