A film review by Craig J. Koban

RIGHTEOUS KILL j
½ 

2008, R, 101 mins.

Turk: Robert De Niro / Rooster: Al Pacino / Karen: Carla Gugino / Detective Riley: Donnie Wahlberg / Jessica: Trilby Glover / Lt. Hingis: Brian Dennehy / Detective Perez:.John Leguizamo / Spider: Curtis Jackson

Directed by Jon Avnet / Written by Russell Gewirtz.

I absolutely despise it when a movie thinks that it is significantly smarter than their audience when, in reality, the viewers can see every mechanization of the plot from a mile away.   This kind of narcissistic cinematic smugness turns me off…big time.   

Case in point is the new police procedural/murder mystery thriller RIGHTEOUS KILL, which certainly thinks that it’s once step ahead of viewers with its storyline and would-be scandalous third act twist.  Unfortunately, RIGHTEOUS KILL is a half baked affair as far as thrillers go and offers up a contrived, groaningly predictable, and mediocre crime story that culminates with last minute theatrics that are borderline asinine.  What’s even more damning is the fact that the film stars two of the greatest acting powerhouses of the last 40 years of American cinema, which begs the question as to whether they read the script from beginning to end and believed – in their heart of hearts – that this sub par, TV-movie-of-the-week fare was worth their legendary status. 

The two “legends” are, of course, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and the advertising for RIGHTEOUS KILL has taken feverous pains to let audiences know that this is the long-awaited cop drama that will thoroughly and triumphantly pair the two most gifted and empowered actors of their generation.  Now, there is no doubt whatsoever on my part whatsoever that these two titans of tough bravado cinema don’t deserve all of these accolades, and there certainly was a part of me that was yearning with PHANTOM MENACED-sized anticipation for a film outing that would have them share most of the screen time together as partners (this notion is the stuff that geek-movie aficionado dreams are made of).  Yet, the end results of RIGHTEOUS KILL are so decidedly blasé and tired that you kind of wonder what interest, if any, there would be in seeing this film if De Niro and Pacino were not involved.   

The short answer: Not much. 

It sure seems like…well…forever ago that the two last shared a fleeting moment of screen time together.  Michael Mann’s 1995 cops and robbers classic, HEAT, was just that film that marked the very first time that De Niro and Pacino – gasp! – shared a scene together.  This, of course, was not the first film where they both were caught up in (THE GODFATHER: PART II had them both play crucial members of the Corleone family, but since they respectively were portrayed in different time periods, their characters never intersected).  When HEAT was released fans clamored for some “hoo-ah” bit scenery chewing between the feisty Pacino and the ragin’ bull that was De Niro.  Yes, the only screen time the two shared – outside of the film’s final few seconds – was HEAT’s most famous: a soft spoken verbal confrontation of balls and brawn in a coffee shop. 

13 very long years later, we are finally given privilege to seeing the pair reunite...and for substantially longer screen time than Mann’s thriller.  To be sure, there is barely a moment in all of RIGHTEOUS KILL where Pacino and De Niro don’t occupy the frame together.  Within the first few minutes, the sight of the pair on screen together as cops – roles they certainly were both born to play and exceedingly flourish at – is pure rock n’ roll (as one character states at a point in the film, “They’re like Lennon and McCartney”).  However, the novelty of seeing them both wears off pretty quickly, mostly because the 65-year-old De Niro and the 68-year-old Pacino only generate moderate chemistry together.  If anything, they seem to been slumming through routine parts that lesser actors could have occupied. 

Police detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) have been loyal friends and partners for as long as they’ve had badges.  Whereas loftier notions of retirement should occupy these two near-geriatric dispensers of law and order, Turk and Rooster still persevere with a roughed guts and glory worldview where they see tackling big cases as being more dignified and rewarding than sitting idle at home while collecting a pension.  The two hit the motherload with a new sensationalistic case of a serial killer that is offing other tried criminals that had been released based on legal technicalities.  The killer’s methods are flamboyant, theatrical, and brutal.  He shoots the victims, at close range, and leaves behind awkwardly cobbled together poems at the crime scene, much to the confusion of the police.   

Being long-standing cops with sharp and astute eyes, Turk and Rooster seem well suited to get to the bottom of this savage case.  They do have some competition in the form of two younger, more inexperienced, but equally determined cops, Perez (John Leguizamo) and Riley (Donnie Wahlberg).  The younger cops piece together bits of the evidence to arrive at a simple conclusion:  Considering the intimate nature of the killings and the genuine lack of any struggle on the victims' part, the killer must have both known the victims and had some way of gaining access to the targets.  The most straightforward answer would be that a cop, not a crook, is behind all of this. 

Rooster seems a bit lukewarm to the idea, but his increasingly hot-headed partner in Turk will have nothing of it: He simply is not willing to acknowledge the idea that one of their own kind could possibly be behind these heinous murders.  Turk’s friend and “very rough” lover, a much younger police scientist named Karen (the decent Carla Gugino) also has initial issues coming to grips with seeing a cop as the culprit.  Both Turk and Rooster, on some levels, have difficulty being motivated in finding a suspect period, seeing as they kind of perversely respect the fact that this killer is ridding the world of terrible, immoral people.   

What’s really, really odd, though, is that Turk – in the opening moments of RIGHTEOUS KILL – confesses to a video camera that he is the killer. 

That’s right:  Turk is the killer, and we learn this within the first minute.  The choice to do this by screenwriter Russell Gerwitz utterly leads to RIGHTEOUS KILL’s complete undoing.  Since the audience knows, right up front, the identity of the supposed killer, it all but drains out any of the forward momentum and suspense in the film.  The other negative side effect of this plot device is even more counterproductive: Since we are led to believe that Turk is the killer from scene one, it instinctively leads us to assume that – for the sake of the rest of the story – he is innocent and that someone else is behind it all.  Because of this, the script does such an imbecilic job of tipping off the real killer’s identity so early on that it makes the film’s late game breaking plot twist that reveals his identity to everyone all the more humdrum, banal, and telegraphed…if not silly and preposterous.  Any reasonably sharp viewer should be able to discern the real suspect very early in RIGHTEOUS KILL, and this serves to marginalize the experience of seeing the film altogether.  When Rooster and Turk do have a HEAT-esque standoff near the end, vying to understand the the rationality of everything that has passed, the film seemingly approaches unsophisticated and laughingly dumb self-parody. 

So, RIGHTEOUS KILL is a whitewash affair on a screenplay level.  Is there any tantalizing reason to see it then?   I dunno.  Since the script shamefully turns a blind eye to even lazy logic and hampers the film down to the level of a pedestrian and sophomoric pastiche of just about every cliché to emerge out of this genre, the only selling point would be De Niro and Pacino themselves.  Seeing the pair is a giddy initial thrill, to be sure, but the lagging sensation of seeing them both slave away through an exhaustingly rudimentary and paint-by-numbers story is more than depressing.  To be fair, there is a minor effort of their part - when on screen together – to carve out a palpable sense of professional camaraderie that rises above the sluggish script:  You at least gain a sense that they are both long-standing partners and friends.  

De Niro is fairly assured and rock steady, but his work here nevertheless is a patchwork of small glimpses of his vastly better past performances in similar films.  Ditto for Pacino, who manages to look even more withered, slumbering, and disinterested.  There is something to be said about toning down his usual characteristic manic thespian quirks, but Pacino sure looks fatigued here.  His last great performance was in Christopher Nolan’s wonderful INSOMNIA from 2003, which showed how to harness a quieter and more serene Pacino charisma.  Unfortunately, seeing him flounder in lackluster efforts like SIMONE, GIGLI, THE RECRUIT, OCEAN’S THIRTEEN, and the categorically dreadful crapfest that was this year’s 88 MINUTES (also directed by RIGHTEOUS KILL’S helmer, Jon Avnet) does not do justice to his legacy. 

If you want to see the granddaddy of all De Niro/Pacino on-screen collaborations, see the short diner scene in HEAT or that film’s final sequence at LAX airport where the two actors have a tense, taut, teeth clenched, and itchy trigger finger confrontation.  Sadly, RIGHTEOUS KILL does not, for most of its 101 minutes, illicit the same enthusiastic, euphoric, hands clamped to your seat response.   Instead of being an on the edge of your seat viewing experience of seeing these two behemoths of the movies, you instead lay back limply with only moderate interest.

Righteous it ain't.

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