Righteous Kill

This movie boasts a tired and generic script and achieves a weird sort of harmonic convergence of forgetablilty.

Righteous Kill

Director: Jon Avnet
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Curtis Jackson, Donnie Wahlberg, Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo
Distributor: Anchor Bay
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Overture Films
First date: 2008
US DVD Release Date: 2009-01-06

Before we get to all the things wrong with Righteous Kill (and they are legion), let’s try to imagine a scenario where the film might work, even succeed. Let’s suppose that you (my little test guinea pig) don’t get out to the theaters all that often, and on top of that, you don’t watch all that many movies at home, either.

But when you do, you are rather blithely and happily indiscriminate in your choices – you are not particular about what kind of movie you see, or who directs, or even who stars. You are also mostly incurious about cinematic history and conventions, about archetypes and tropes. And, more specifically, you are mostly in the dark about how police thrillers, and serial killer mysteries, and buddy cop films work. And as an addendum, though you may know who they are by sight, and know that they are famous, you’ve never actually seen an Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro film. So those are our prerequisites for a viewing.

This might not be enough, though. So let’s say that you just haven’t seen a movie made in the past 40 years. Or let’s say you haven’t seen a movie in the past 40 years, period. Or, well, ever. Let’s just say you’ve been up to better things -- you’ve been walking the earth, or living in the wilderness, or have been living in another country that is insulated from American pop culture and film. Or maybe you are from another planet.

So yes, let’s just say you are an alien, and that this is your very first introduction to humanity and it curious creations, coming across a signal of this film being beamed through space of this film. Then, and probably only then, will Righteous Kill work, or hold up to scrutiny, or fascinate and maybe even entertain. Yes, only if you have in fact never ever seen a movie before, or seen television, or read a book -- only if, in fact, you are not human at all – that’s how Righteous Kill will succeed.

Because, otherwise Righteous Kill is almost wholly inexplicable, and one can barely imagine what imagined audience called such a film into existence. And while an experienced viewer can start ticking off everything that is wrong with it, even our test audience alien, floating out there in space, watching this mess unfold, will be bothered by an accretion of little things.

Like, why are these humans talking in this rather affected manner? Why does it sound like everything they say has been said a thousand times before? Why are events unfolding in such a deliberately frustrating manner, so indirect and obviously false? And why is it so easy to anticipate all plot points and their sequence? And is this unexpected ending, where our expectations of who did what and why are completely upended, actually meant to surprise? Because after seeing everything here, and having not seen another actual film, it is actually hardly surprising at all, and rather laughable in its obviousness and idiocy.

And that’s partly the reason the film is such an obvious failure, because of its universal obviousness, even to an untrained, virgin eye. Righteous Kill is like some grand Platonic Idea of the “generic” – it conforms so neatly, so tightly, to an obvious template, goes so deliberately through all the motions, that it can be understood from one end of the universe to the other. It could rightly make a claim to being the ne plus ultra of police thriller/serial killer/buddy cop films (which would be its only strength). Or it would, if it weren’t so exhausted, if it weren’t so obviously the last wheezing breath of tired convention.

I think the title is the tip off. Righteous Kill is about as remarkably bland and generic as anything that has come down the pike in some time – so much so, that I promptly forgot the name of the film I was watching when asked moments after the opening credits had rolled by. And it boasts such a complementarily tired and generic script to back it up, achieves such a weird sort of harmonic convergence of forgetablilty, that, much like my problem with the title, I also promptly forgot most of what happened five minutes after I shut the movie off. (It also boasts an astoundingly banal tag line “Most people respect the badge. Everyone respects the gun”, that is actually spoken not once but twice in the course of the film).

Luckily, my notes remind me that Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino play veteran cops named, respectively, Turk and Rooster (similarly generic and unimaginative), who are investigating a string of connected homicides. Turns out someone has been gunning down the scum of the city – pimps, murderers, rapists, etc. – the connecting link being that they were all for some reason never convicted of their crimes and are now walking free. This is obviously too much for SOMEONE to take, someone’s sense of justice is bruised, and thus this SOMEONE in question turns to vigilantism, leaving behind a calling card at each scene that is actually a real card (of the neat little 3x5 index variety), always with some bit of rhyming doggerel written on it explaining the reasons for the crime (The killer is christened “Poetry Boy” by the police department. Really? “Poetry Boy”?! And they wonder why I’m having a hard time taking any of this seriously)

I mean, this isn’t the most original set up of all time, but it is a tried and true formula. Revenge/vigilante films are not without their wide appeal. The problem is that the film mostly avoids any of the psychological or moral angles that vigilantism provokes by avoiding any sort of reasonable motivation for these killings (beyond an amorphous sense of outraged justice, nothing connects the vigilante to his victims). It even avoids the sort of primal emotional cathartic satisfaction the audience derives from seeing justice served… ahem, righteously, by eschewing almost any sort of violence action on screen at all, keeping almost everything off camera.

This is a deliberately tactical decision, because the film doesn’t have time for your petty moral concerns about violence and justice. Its only concern is in keeping up an elaborate charade of mystery of the identity of the killer, of playing a tired game of misdirection and trickery. Everything must be kept mostly off screen to keep up the guessing game, to keep up the subterfuge of its twist ending. But it’s all so contemptuously obvious and blatantly telegraphed – who the killer is, what his/her motivation is – that it severely tries ones patience. But even if you miss all this, you’d probably be able to narrow it all down by, oh, I don’t know, looking at the poster for the film and seeing whose names are above whose mugs.

So this is all bad enough. But what makes Righteous Kill so unforgiveable is that it simply can’t be bothered to be the truly terrible film that it should by all rights be. It plays it safe, too safe, it’s tepidly inoffensive (except for a rather dismaying undertow of ugly misogyny) and in the end, again, is simply all too forgettable. I wouldn’t say DeNiro and Pacino mail it in – they are always fun to watch, and they can command the screen when all else about the film fails spectacularly – but one would have hoped that they wouldn’t have been given such tired material for their only other onscreen pairing aside from Heat. [Righteous Kill even goes so far as to pay homage or plagiarize (you decide) the famous ending to that film in its own ending, to withering effect.]

Would that it were electrified by some really great gonzo performances by the leads – that might redeem things. One of those patented DeNiro “I’m just going to mug for the camera and do my best bad DeNiro impression and take my paycheck and go home” turns he seems to have settled into in his latter years now, like he is mocking the audience.

Or maybe Pacino could have indulged in one of those way way over the top “Hoo-hah!” scenery chewing turns that have made the late stages of his career such a guilty pleasure.. Or maybe even something as transcendently weird as Pacino’s role in Jon Avnet’s profoundly terrible 88 Minutes (Avnet also directed Righteous Kill. I’m not sure how he is able to get all this work, let alone command such top tier talent). Anything other than this utterly workmanlike, totally forgettable, tandem of tired convention and cliché. But perhaps being quickly forgotten is the best possible fate of such a hopeless film.

The extras included with Righteous Kill – not skimpy, but not all that great – do little to clarify the film’s existence, only offering a few hints of justification. There’s a 15-minute behind the scenes featurette which devolves mostly into everyone standing in awe of DeNiro and Pacino, and heaping praise on them for their performances. DeNiro and Pacino, only briefly featured, seem to be reading from cue cards when they praise the invention of the script which had so piqued their interest. Speaking of the script, screenwriter Russell Gewirtz admits that he thought of the twist ending first and worked backward from there, which I guess explains why the film feels so jerry-rigged from the get go.

The other feature is a 20-minute mini-documentary about cops and corruption. There are interviews with some former beat officers, some lawyers, and some academics, all talking about the psychology of the “thin blue line” between cop and criminal. None of the cases they talk about seem applicable in any way to the actual film itself, which makes the inclusion of this feature doubly odd, since it seems to have been explicitly made for the DVD (reference is made to the film by the narrator multiple times).

Jon Avnet’s rather remarkably unremarkable commentary rounds out the features. He stays mostly on point with scene-specific breakdowns, though he does note that no less than 15 producers were involved in bringing this mess to the screen. I had always thought that the number of screenwriters involved was the most telling sign of a film’s potential awfulness, but it seems perhaps this is a better general indicator. Keep an eye on that number when selecting what to see on a Saturday night.


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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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