Like Dirty Harry said, nothing wrong with a gun as long as the right people get shot.
—Rooster (Al Pacino)
Turk (Robert De Niro) and Rooster (Al Pacino) are competitive. You get this right away in the lamentably named Righteous Kill, as the longtime police detectives fire at target after target, their shots echoing and their glances darting from bullseye to each other in quick cuts. The opening montage includes as well their efforts to outdo one another in the gym and in speed-chess, whomping at the clock top even as they concentrate on the board.
As the camera passes over their deeply lined faces and piercing eyes, it’s clear their many years together have produced a certain mutual understanding: they anticipate moves, tricks, and twitches, they can feel changes in rhythm, appreciate bursts of energy and lapses of concentration. Rooster offers his own insight into the risks of genius, recalling that Bobby Fischer’s gift and focus eventually turned to paranoia: “He thought he was being attacked on all sides,” the detective asserts. “He couldn’t see what was in front of him.”
Now that you know to be on the lookout for what’s in front of you—or at least know that Turk had better that on that lookout—Jon Avnet’s decidedly unthrilling murder mystery starts piling on clues. The men-as-boys business leads to what appears to be a confession from Turk, meaning, the image has all the usual trappings (close-up, black-and-white, grainy video, his battered face and weary phrasing, plus a helpful self-descriptor: “You can call it a confession if you want”). The gist of it has to do with murders, 14 of them. Apparently fed up with the inadequacy of the legal system, with perps walking on technicalities and victims suffering eternally, the vigilante has been dispensing justice. “It all started,” he says, with a case that frustrated the heck out of him, a man who raped and killed his girlfriend’s little girl. “My partner and I,” goes the confession, “found this unacceptable.” You can just feel the seething heat of irritation in this storytelling—or you would if the delivery was a little less flat. As it is, you have to fill in the emotional business, as you do for most all the film, which is consistently thwarted by a bad mix of incoherence and convention.
Take, for instance, the guys’ on-again-off-again fixation with Spider (Curtis Jackson, who needs a new agent already). A cocky, mumbling club-owner and drug dealer who wears heavy chains and undershirts, Spider earns the cops’ endless interest when he sniffs out a wire they’ve planted on a client they’ve busted. Not only is it preposterous to think these supposed seasoned vets would think assume anyone, let alone the wily Spider, will fall for this amateurish deception, but the shoot-out is at once predictably bloody and mostly meaningless, complete with the requisite display of childish violence by the angry Turk, kicking the handcuffed Spider and calling him a “fucking lowlife!”
The episode leads to what seems to be the movie’s primary gimmick: while under internal investigation, Rooster and Turk are deprived of their guns and sent to a shrink. Here the split screens—doctor-Turk-Rooster-Truck-Rooster-Rooster-doctor—suggest some slipping and sliding of ambitions, personalities, and furies. But the look-at-me visuals aren’t telling you anything the performers haven’t already, and in much subtler terms (relatively speaking). Instructed to write their “feelings” in mini-composition books, the detectives scoff but do it too. Turk appears repeatedly, hunched over his book while riding the subway, as if he’s Travis Bickle in another life (Travis would never ride the train with all these “fucking lowlifes”). “Our job is to keep 99% of the people safe from the other 1%,” rhapsodizes Turk, watching hooligans of color leaning over cowering white folks. “But they’re clueless. The only ones paying attention are us and the 1%. The rest go shopping.”
It appears the film includes us in that 99%, at least in its deployment of silly tricks to sustain suspense and gesture toward plot. Point of view shots hide the serial killer’s identity even as brutal crime scenes intimate his increasing rage and the confession identifies the victims (say, a pimp who rides a skateboard, a priest who molests altar boys) more or less randomly (as in, “He was Number 11”). The shooter leaves poems on the bodies, chastising their criminal behaviors. And his understanding of evidence and expertise with his weapon leads the team—now including hotheaded Simon (John Leguizamo) and methodical Ted (Donnie Wahlberg, who in his other life, still “can be your boyfriend”)—to guess that he’s a cop. Simon marvels at the perfect aim: “Not one stray slug,” he muses, “Even Berkowitz put a couple in the Corinthian leather” (reminding you that Leguizamo was once in a much smarter, more resonant movie with a serial killer, Summer of Sam). As the guys ponder the case, the frame zaps to Rooster and Turk’s faces, as each is apparently aware of who’s doing what. Or… do they?
While this bit of puzzle passes for feeble plot in Righteous Kill, the more annoying aspect by far is the movie’s use of The Girl. At first, Karen (Carla Gugino) looks promising: she’s the department coroner, plainly unimpressed by the boys’ self-loving banter and more than able to handle herself around grisly, violent scenes. It’s not long before she’s relegated to sexy object status, however, with especially titillating extras. Her so-coolness at work is somehow bled out into her personal life, as she’s into being abused during sex and visibly “turned on” by graphic descriptions of crimes (“You’re a bad little girl,” mutters Rooster after one such session).
That her current boyfriend is Turk makes the other boys jealous, though she does make fun of his lack of vigor (“My sister pulled my hair harder than that!”). The movie uses her both to critique the male cops’ sense of self-righteousness and be the victim. The preemptive caveat here—that Karen “wants it”—hardly matters.