[12 September 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Sometimes, an excess of talent can lead to very little in evidence. Put another way, you can overload a film with artistic aspirations, failing to see that several pluses can still create a great big minus. Ten years ago, any film starring Robert DeNiro and/or Al Pacino would have been cause to celebrate - or at least to pay attention. And after Spike Lee’s sensational take on his Inside Man, screenwriter Russell Gerwitz also represents a fairly hefty amount of commercial viability. Toss in a decent supporting cast that includes John Leguizamo, Donny Wahlberg, Carla Gugino, and Brian Dennehey and stick them all under Jon Avnet’s capable if sometimes clunky direction and the results should speak for themselves, right? Well, in the case of the new cop thriller, Righteous Kill, the resulting oration is not exciting. In fact, it’s ordinary at best.
Turk (DeNiro) and Rooster (Pacino) are two longtime partners in the NYPD. Both have seen their fair share of injustice, and when a child killer is set free, the duo decides to frame him. Shortly thereafter, more scumbags start turning up dead, their bodies riddled with bullets, a nursery rhyme like poem left at each scene. With the help of officers Perez and Riley, and forensics specialist Corelli, the pair hone in on the potential murderer. One lead takes them to a nightclub run by suspected drug dealer Spider. Another takes them directly to the door of one of their own - namely Turk. Seems everyone on the case considers this seasoned veteran the prime suspect. After all, he had access, motive, and a means of covering it up. Of course if it does turn out to be a cop, it could be anyone on the squad…even someone himself desperate to solve the crimes.
Righteous Kill is so average that the standard bell curve can’t calculate just how general it is. Locked into the standard crime and punishment paradigm, with a genre mandated twist at the end, this is not so much a missed opportunity as a subpar story making the most of its limited appeal. The pairing of our former powerbrokers, each one covered in the less than appetizing patina of tainted Oscar, has none of the indomitable force we were promised. Instead, as in Michael Mann’s Heat, DeNiro and Pacino play off each other marvelously - and then that’s about it. The script provides inadequate opportunity for the (former?) A-listers to move beyond their basic personalities. Of the two, Pacino comes out the clear winner. His Rooster character is a collection of snarky comments and lightning one-liners. Most of the time, Big Bob is like Travis Bickle with a goiter, indigestion, and a tight fitting truss.
The rest of the cast is really no help. Leguizamo and Wahlberg pull shtick that seems left over from their often spotty resume, and Gugino is given the thankless role of a polished professional who trades it all in once the badge comes off for some dangerous and kinky sleazeball sex. With 50 Cent along for added street cred (which the movie fails to capitalize on, by the way) and various faceless performers playing random felonious archetypes, DeNiro and Pacino are left doing most of the movie’s manual labor. There are scenes where you can literally see the former giants pushing the plot forward. Avnet, for all his hit or miss mannerisms behind the camera, really can’t be faulted here. He’s firm, if a tad too flashy. No, all the flaws extend directly from Gerwitz’s work. The story is less than solid, and some of the sequences definitely needed another trip through the word processor - or a toss in the trash.
Maybe the real reason Righteous Kill is not more engaging is that, as an entertainment, the police procedural has gone the way of the romantic comedy and the erotic thriller. Call it the CSI influence, or better yet, the overexposure of the category via the direct to DVD market, but every time your turn around, another 88 Minutes or Untraceable is stinking up the Cineplex. DeNiro and Pacino would have to be packing major motion picture moxie to reinvigorate the format, and they don’t appear too excited to be taking on the challenge. While not quite the perfunctory payday of some of their recent efforts, Kill does contain enough problems to prevent its straightforward embrace.
And yet, thanks to the inherent nature of the storyline, the desire to get to the end and see how everything wraps up, we more or less stick with this unspectacular stuff. Oddly enough there are some big laughs here, moments where Rooster ridicules his fellow boys in blue with a kind of loveable crassness. We also find some solace in that the victims are all vile, indefensible scum of the earth. But then Gerwitz gives us the aggravating narrative device of having DeNiro appear on screen, right up front, and ‘confess’ to the crimes. It deadens the impact of the true finale. The film would work much better if the story was left open, the eventual lead to a cop coming from hard work and deduction, not a cinematic gimmick. But then we wouldn’t get those meaningless monologues, Turk looking into a surveillance lens and spilling his (or someone’s) guts about the joys of killing.
Because they do work well together, because we get the innate appeal of having the two major league Method actors tumbling within a formula they are familiar with, Righteous Kill gets off easy. Taking away our touted leads and substituting any number of nominal celebrity skins would result in something almost wholly unwatchable. But with DeNiro and Pacino at the helm, and Avnet doing little to get in their way, we end up with a decent, derivative journey through material that should have crackled with sizzling urban suspense. Such lax results couldn’t have been part of the plan. But then again, putting these firebrands together was never a guarantee of success in the first place. Nothing they’ve done since turning in their talent for some trinkets indicates otherwise.