What a difference a director makes. When Al Pacino and Robert De Niro shared a scene together in Heat, with Pacino as the L.A. cop par excellence and De Niro as the master criminal, the wide-awake and super-skilled Michael Mann orchestrated it, aptly enough, as a meeting of street legends, and the legendary actors pulled it off. When Pacino said "I don't know how to do anything else" and "I don't much want to, either" and De Niro replied, twice, "Neither do I," they put tons of emotional weight and history behind that simple exchange.
Under the guidance of Jon Avnet (who also made Pacino's previous bomb, 88 Minutes), they're both playing New York police detectives - partners, no less - in the cop-and-serial-killer tale Righteous Kill, and they're thunderously mediocre. It's as if they don't know how to do anything except banter and bond - and don't much want to, either.
Written by Russell Gewirtz (Inside Man), Righteous Kill is one of those excruciating trick movies that is proud of its pseudo-cleverness. When a vigilante starts killing off bad guys and leaving notes of explanation written in rhymes, our heroes and a rival pair of detectives (John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg) begin to suspect that a cop might be involved.
The filmmakers think they're using the magician's trick of misdirection, guiding our eyes toward a possible culprit while laying the groundwork for another. What we get isn't artful misdirection but just plain bad direction and writing. Snippets of a videotaped confession frame the action, interspersed with De Niro's and Pacino's sessions with a police shrink and an Internal Affairs team. This allows them to spout attitudes about rampaging street crime and a weak court system that come right out of a Dirty Harry movie. Indeed, De Niro says he approves of Harry Callahan's attitude that "there's nothing wrong with a little shooting, as long as the right people get shot."
The movie opens with a montage of Pacino and De Niro practicing on the firing range and working out in the precinct gym. What they should do is head for the Actors Studio for a tune-up. Pacino was at his best in The Insider (1999), but without a director like Mann to tamp him down, he can't restrain his theatricality. A friend said "Maybe you have to deny him one of his senses," citing Pacino's Oscar for Scent of a Woman as a blind former Army colonel. But I thought Pacino was as overblown as Foghorn Leghorn in that movie. With Pacino you have to press the mute button: It's his arch and insistent vocal delivery, more than anything else, that makes him seem phony or theatrical.
De Niro is game but juiceless. (His fans would do better to wait for What Just Happened.) In a lame attempt at contemporaneity, the filmmakers pair him with a hot 30-something crime-scene investigator who has a sadomasochistic streak. Carla Gugino brings some welcome friskiness to the role (though Ashley Judd did it even better in Twisted), and Melissa Leo provides a pungent cameo as a broken woman.
But the male cast lets down the team, largely because of the way the booby-trapped structure undercuts any attempt at depth or wit or texture. To help make all the turnarounds work, the two leads are known only as Rooster (Pacino) and Turk (De Niro). After you see Righteous Kill, you think Turk must be short for turkey.
(Overture) Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Carla Gugino, Donnie Wahlberg. Directed by Jon Avnet. Rated R for violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and brief drug use. Time 100 minutes.
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