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Righteous Kill   C

Overture Films / Millennium Films

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jon Avnet
Writer: Russell Gewirtz
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Curtis Jackson, Carla Gugino, Donnie Wahlberg, Trilby Glover, Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo.

Review by Rob Vaux

The disturbing lack of buzz surrounding Righteous Kill gives some indication of the fetid mediocrity on display. Considering that it pairs Al Pacino and Robert De Niro for the first time since Heat -- and considering how lionized their tête-à-tête was in that earlier film -- it's disappointing to watch Righteous Kill slowly squander their talent. Though not strictly bad, it certainly edges towards the perfunctory, a status ill befitting the cinematic legends at its heart. Indeed, were two other actors present in the leads, the film would barely merit mention at all.

Director John Avnet sets himself a tall order by working in a deeply mined genre -- the police procedural/serial killer mystery which, while still capable of good things in the right hands, will hardly blow anyone away with its originality. The scenario creaks on its hinges with every turn, buoyed by some decent dialogue but otherwise identical to any USA movie of the week. The big hook is that the murderer is likely a cop. His victims are criminals who successfully defied the legal system, and his methods display an intimate knowledge of how the police investigate a crime scene. He puts a bullet in their heads and leaves the untraceable weapon behind, along with a note card bearing a crude bit of poetry which recounts the miscreant's sins.

Hardy the makings of immortal crime drama, which is why Avnet relies largely on his stars to take point. As the two detectives assigned to the case, they have plenty of opportunities to toss out sharp quips and blow our socks off with their crime-solving acumen. Turk (De Niro) is the bad-cop half: all curses and veiled threats as he charges through the streets of New York like a bull in a china shop. Rooster (Pacino) is far more laid-back, defusing his partner's outbursts with a pat on the back and a few dirty jokes. Their easy banter makes for the best moments in Righteous Kill, squabbling with each other like Hepburn and Tracy while leaving their supporting cast (including Carla Gugino, Donnie Wahlberg, and John Leguizamo) in a state of hushed awe. Screenwriter Russell Gerwitz gives them a fair helping of choice lines as they slowly work their way towards the killer (who may be *gasp* One of Their Own), couched in typical copland scenes of running down suspects and talking out clues. Clichéd though they may be, such periods have their share of zip, and Avnet exploits his actors' sense of timing extremely well.

Unfortunately, little else about Righteous Kill can match those modest achievements. The warmed-over Silence of the Lambs routine has a few mildly interesting turns, but never generates sufficient interest either as hard boiled verité or more gimmicky exploitation fare. The final twist (and you knew there was going to be a final twist) begins as merely serviceable before descending into borderline camp through a series of unnecessary embellishments. At times Avnet flirts with the old "thin blue line" debate -- whether it is acceptable to break the law in the name of justice -- but skitters away from the meat of it in favor of Death Wish-style button pushing. Extraneous narrative elements abound, from a coke-using lawyer (Trilby Glover) caught in a vice to some tacked-on nonsense about Turk's girlfriend (Gugino) which serves no purpose other than to keep her relevant.

And the problems extend to the marquee performers as well. Certainly, they exhibit considerable chemistry and they've been doing this long enough to deliver compelling performances in their sleep. But for all his shouts and bullying, De Niro lacks the menace of earlier roles; there's simply no Travis Bickle edginess beneath the glaring eyes. Pacino does better with a more easygoing character, but he also struggles when the time comes to convey his toughness. Considering the frightening intensity for which the two are justly famous, their work here feels curiously inert: like a pair of ghosts aping deeds long past.

To be sure, they've both made worse movies than Righteous Kill. More than once. And the brief running time here may disguise how little steak lies beneath the sizzle of their presence. But that still can't elevate the proceedings beyond the utterly forgettable, nor excuse the fumbling of what should have been a grade-A cinematic event. Fans in need of a Pacino/De Niro hit can just watch the coffee-shop scene from Heat again: it's 20 times cooler and 80 minutes shorter. Righteous Kill clearly aspires to similar magic, but ultimately does little more than remind us how great they used to be.

Review published 09.12.2008.

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