Righteous KillReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/12/08 16:19:26
Even the most devoted fans of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino would have to agree among themselves that in the 13 years since the first and last time that they faced off against each other on the big screen in Michael Mann’s cops-and-robbers epic “Heat” (although they both also appeared in “The Godfather: Part II,” they never appeared on-screen together in that one), their respective filmographies have been fairly shaky from a quality standpoint. De Niro’s apparent willingness to sign on for any project that meets his quote has led him to squander his talents on such indefensible junk as “The Fan,” “15 Minutes,” “Showtime,” “City By the Sea,” “Godsend,” “Shark Tale” and “Hide and Seek” (no, I didn’t forget “The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle”--I just happen to have a soft spot for that particular title) and while Pacino’s output hasn’t quite sunk to those levels yet, he too has been spending his time coasting through such nonsense as “The Recruit,” “Gigi” and “Two for the Money” and the utterly asinine “88 Minutes,” a movie so bad that even De Niro might have rejected it. And yet, despite having collected between them a recent body of work that even the late, great Sonny Tufts might have found embarrassing, I suspect that the mere idea of the two of them teaming up for a movie that allows them to share the screen for more than just the one scene that Mann allowed them in “Heat” still contains enough frisson to inspire a certain degree of excitement in most moviegoers. However, those going into “Righteous Kill” expecting that the mere presence of the two actors working side-by-side will be enough to keep things interesting are in for a rude awakening. While this painfully derivative and utterly nonsensical would-be thriller may not be the worst film that either one has ever made, it is arguably the most utterly useless and the only real mystery is why two such talented and charismatic actors would choose to work on a project that seems in every way, from its cliché-ridden script to its cheapo attempt to recreate New York City by utilizing the mean streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut to its very title, like the kind of straight-to-video craptacular that might have been made back in 1991 with the likes of Michael Pare and Danny Aiello and even those two might have had enough self-respect to demand a few rewrites before stepping in front of the cameras.De Niro and Pacino star as a pair of tough New York cops named, I kid you not, Turk and Rooster. While Rooster (Pacino) is the smooth and easy-going type,, Turk is a violent hothead who flies into a rage at the drop of the hat, particularly when the hat is dropped by a degenerate criminal who has just been set free to rape and kill again by namby-pamby judges, and whose only form of relaxation comes via a kinky sexual relationship with fellow investigator Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino). It seems, however, that someone out there feels the same way as Turk, at least in regards to degenerate criminals being set free by namby-pamby judges (though I am sure that they would have no problem with the kinky sex with Carla Gugino either), because before long, their bullet-ridden bodies of murderers, pedophilic priests and Rambo the Skateboarding Pimp (again, I kid you not) begin turning up on the streets accompanied by short poems commemorating their dirty lives and times. As the body count begins to rise, the investigation begins to suggest that either a cop or an ex-cop with a grudge is behind the murders and suspicion quickly begins to fall on Turk. For one thing, all of the victims seem to be connected to him in some way. For another, we discover when a child killer that he nabbed years earlier was set free, he cheerfully planted evidence on the guy that got him convicted of a different crime. Finally, there is the fact that the story is more or less told in flashback and opens with Turk confessing to all of the murders on a security camera video--a sure sign that someone out there is trying to frame Turk for some reason or another and that he is innocent of the killings. Since most viewers will pretty much be able to figure out exactly who is the real killer long before the end of the opening reel, the film tries to muddy the waters by throwing in such ancillary characters as a violent drug dealer (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) whom Turk and Rooster unsuccessfully try to bust early in the film and who keeps turning up for inexplicable reasons, a pair of antagonistic fellow investigators (Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo) and a corrupt former officer (Alan Blumenfeld) who holds Turks responsible for getting him kicked off the force.
Where to begin with the ways in which “Righteous Kill” goes horribly wrong? For one thing, the screenplay by Russell Gewirtz (who also penned the much more entertaining “Inside Man”) is one of those contraptions that manages to simultaneously be painfully predictable and utterly inscrutable--even though you will be able to figure out who did the killings before the opening credits finish running , the story is so muddled that even after the end credits have come to an end, you will still be asking yourself why or how they were committed. (Walking out of the film, I felt like one of the two CIA officials at the end of “Burn After Reading” vainly trying to put together what happened.) That is bad enough, I suppose, but what makes it even worse is the way that Gewirtz has jam-packed his script with the hoariest clichés imaginable ranging from all the expected police procedural tropes (such the inane nicknames for our heroes to the part where one is taken off the streets for no other reason than to advance the plot to a final game of cat-and-mouse through an abandoned warehouse) to the sub-Tarantino exchanges of dialogue in which Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, two men generally regarded as being among the all-time great American actors, are reduced to babbling about “The Brady Bunch” and “Underdog.” Imagine cramming an entire season of an especially uninspired cop show into 100 minutes of complete inanity and you pretty much have “Righteous Kill” in a nutshell. Of course, if it had been a mash-up of a season-long string of TV episodes, it still might have had more cinematic flair than uber-hack Jon Avnet (whose last directorial effort, I kid you not, was the aforementioned “88 Minutes”) brings to the material--the self-consciously convoluted storytelling approach never works, whole thing moves at a snail’s pace and the occasional arty flourishes that he randomly sticks in amidst his otherwise pedestrian compositions are reminiscent of a first-time filmmaker trying to simply emulate the tricks of a master filmmaker without ever demonstrating a grasp of why those tricks worked in the first place.However, what is by far the most depressing element of “Righteous Kill” is the sight of De Niro and Pacino slumming their way through material that is so completely beneath even the obviously reduced standards that they have set for themselves over the last few years. In fact, neither one bothers to attempt anything remotely resembling a performance, not even a bad one. Instead, they skulk through the proceeding offering the kind of one-note caricatures that you might expect to see from second-rate impersonators instead of first-rate actors--De Niro glowers and swears a lot while Pacino randomly yells his lines at the top of his lungs. Even worse, the two generate precious little rapport in their scenes together--neither one seems engaged with either the material or each other and they plod through their scenes with such a palpable lack of enthusiasm that it feels at times as if the film has been entirely crafted out of rehearsal footage of the two going through the material at quarter-speed in order to save their energy for the actual takes. Hell, the two seemed more focused and committed to the material and each other when they appeared on David Letterman the night before the movie opened in order to deliver a Top 10 list on the reasons why they like being actors (sample reason: “Every time I go to work, I get to ask myself ‘I wonder if I’ll see Harvey Keitel naked?’) Then again, maybe they were just relieved to be able to finally be able to recite lines that were written with actual wit, flair and dramatic tension, which is more than they could say about the film they were ostensibly flogging.
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