This time around they're both cops
but have no fear — old habits die hard.
In Righteous Kill, director Jon Avnet’s hotly anticipated cinematic reunion for Heat stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, the two play tough-as-nails veteran NYPD detectives. In summing up their professional partnership, a supporting character simply explains, “They’re like Lennon and McCartney.”
While it’s one of many pop culture references sprinkled throughout Russell Gerwitz’s follow-up screenplay to the Spike Lee smash Inside Man, for all intents and purposes it’s an especially poignant line uttered by a very minor character. Especially considering that that very line and that forgettable character seem to serve as a sort of doorway from the movie to the audience — it essentially echoes our very thoughts as we watch arguably the two finest actors of their generation play off each other with a fiery intensity that’s been missing from some of their more recent by-the-numbers work.
Much like having a favorite Beatle or being able to dub somebody a McCartney or a Lennon person and instinctively get just who they are by their taste (much like Cusack’s character surmised in High Fidelity), film fans can be broken down into two distinct breeds as well. Namely, you have Pacino people and De Niro people. And while acting-wise, they’re both brilliant, due to his consistency and ability to disappear into a role rather than shout (as Pacino is prone to doing a little too often post-“HOOAH!” a.k.a. Scent of a Woman), I’ve always been a De Niro girl. And yes, I’ll even admit that when I was sixteen, I was so passionate about De Niro as “the greatest actor who ever lived,” that I actually did drop a guy who not only cruelly belittled my beloved Bobby D but also said that you can’t even put the two men in the same category.
Of course rejecting someone solely on taste was hastily juvenile and would probably have made terrific fodder for an episode of Seinfeld. However now that more than a decade has passed, sadly we’ve found both De Niro and Pacino often pigeonholed into playing mere caricatures of the characters they are most famous for playing. And while the '00s are finding Sean Penn, Russell Crowe, Don Cheadle, Leonardo DiCaprio, and a few others giving the men a serious run for their money, simply put, Pacino and De Niro are still the Brando and Dean of their generation.
And admittedly the smoldering glances of Pacino back in his heyday made him the one you most wanted to dance the tango with (like Burn Notice’s Gabrielle Anwar did in Woman), there was still something undeniably alluring about De Niro even when he stared down a guy in a bar in GoodFellas without saying a word — perfectly cut to music — and we know he’s just decided to end another character’s life. While they’ve both played monsters, De Niro is like a car crash you can’t look away from. Something hooks you and you find yourself laughing, frighteningly repulsed yet oddly intrigued when he says, “Come out, come out wherever you are” in Cape Fear and even more so when he can take an entire page filled with profanity and make that dialogue sing as though he were Frank Sinatra. What actor on earth hasn’t dreamed about getting cursed out by De Niro onscreen? And hell, the red band trailer for Righteous itself is practically an ode to the f-bomb, although oddly, instead of seeming gratuitous, Pacino and De Niro play those lines as though they were jazz. However, while I urge you to track that one down, for now, we must make do with the green band:
View the Trailer
So aside from my gushing bias where these men are concerned (as I stood in awe and simply stared at the large studio stand for Righteous Kill months back when it first debuted in the lobby of my local multiplex), I think I speak for everyone when I say that after the tease of their brief scenes together in Heat, we simply couldn’t wait for them to spend more time in each other’s company with the camera rolling for longer than ten minutes at a time. Although they’d been co-stars in The Godfather Part II, up until Michael Mann’s L.A. epic Heat, the two men hadn’t shared a single frame and to film buffs, that aforementioned film’s diner conversation felt more like two buddies catching up on the past than a cop and a robber sizing each other up.
Needless to say, they set each other off, each igniting the other man like the worthiest chess opponent and it’s no wonder that Pacino’s Righteous character, nicknamed Rooster, is himself fond of playing chess in New York’s Washington Square Park. Having worked on the force side-by-side with his partner Turk (De Niro) for more than thirty years, the two detectives share an intuition that’s closer than most marriages — able to complete each other’s sentences, even mentally understand the other man’s next move before perhaps he does himself.
However, when bodies of the city’s “untouchable” and un-prosecutable scum start showing up around town with poems by their corpses revealing the horrific actions of their past, the men’s boss Lieutenant Hingis (Brian Dennehy) begins fearing that not only do they have a new serial killer but he could be one of the city’s finest. And when younger detectives Simon Perez (John Leguizamo) and Ted Riley (Boomtown’s Donnie Wahlberg) begin working the case as well, fingers all start pointing in the direction of Turk and Rooster, leading to a twist-filled yet overly melodramatic conclusion.
Much like Gerwitz’s Inside Man script (which is getting a sequel), there is quite a major surprise involved in Righteous Kill and while I did kick myself for not figuring it out much earlier as actually one very frank clue is revealed within the opening fifteen minutes making me want to see it a second time around, I still couldn’t help feeling slightly disappointed by the contrivances of the storytelling. Instead of a daring and ingenious look at corruption — much like this year’s surprisingly underrated Street Kings — Righteous Kill never aspires to be anything more than a run-of-the-mill police thriller.
While fans of Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent) will have fun checking him out opposite Pacino and De Niro, Righteous Kill otherwise wastes not just the two great leading men but more specifically its supporting players. This is especially apparent in an off-putting role for the immensely versatile and talented Carla Gugino who plays a crime scene investigator who only serves to add a titillating and perverse twist to the amoral tale as a kinky masochist involved with Turk but one who gets a fairly upsetting and possibly misogynistic “punishment” for her sexual preferences to set the Heat-like concluding events in motion.
Although it’s always a joy to see De Niro and Pacino in action, given their age there probably aren’t as many calls for them to appear opposite one another as there should be. While you wouldn’t exactly picture them starring in something like The Bucket List or Grumpy Old Men, it’d be great to see them break free from the chains we as ardent fans have placed on them by appreciating them in the type of roles actors such as Tom Wilkinson or Alan Rickman typically play.
While it’s still an entertaining film and one that no doubt will do great business at the box office to see the men in action (although squaring off opposite the new Coen Brothers flick may not have been the best decision marketing-wise), I’m amazed to say that for a police thriller, I’d probably recommend the Keanu Reeves DVD release Street Kings before this one. Although as a De Niro girl, understand that there is no substitute for a big screen reunion of acting’s Lennon and McCartney and those who just want to see the men rock ‘n roll won’t be disappointed in the least.