In 1995, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, who are tied for second in my book on the list of all-time greatest cinematic actors behind Marlon Brando, appeared in a scene together for the first time in the film “Heat.” For many, Michael Mann’s near three-hour masterpiece was worth the price of admission alone. Fast forward 13 years, and someone finally put out a movie full of Al and Bob interaction. Sadly, thanks to a shoddy script and director Jon Avnet’s inept cinematography, “Righteous Kill” is an utter waste of a golden opportunity.
DeNiro and Pacino play, respectively, Turk and Rooster, two aging yet still gung-ho detectives who suddenly find that all those bad guys who got acquitted by juries are turning up dead. Before long, they, along with the two prerequisite brash, younger detectives (John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg) come to the conclusion that only a cop could have committed the crimes. As they investigate, the brazen Turk finds himself constantly in hot water with the lieutenant, played by the marvelous character actor Brian Dennehy, and in a bizarre relationship with another detective, Karen (Carla Gugino).
Karen’s sexual quirks and general behavior make her far and away the most entertaining character, yet Avnet takes the beautiful, talented and interesting Gugino and shoves her to the side to make room for more Pacino and DeNiro time. The whole film revolves around our old buddy cops. As Internal Affairs breathes down their necks, the two go to bat for each other and make sure both are absolved.
One officer remarks that “they’re like Lennon and McCartney.” That analogy is ridiculous and it doesn’t even work; it means to say that the two are so close there must be some friction, but Lennon and McCartney came to loathe each other with such a passionate hate that, if harnessed, could have broken the world of oil dependency even before Carter’s administration. That bit of ineptness serves as a microcosm for the film’s mistakes.
The inherent problem with this wannabe thriller is evident from the start. It opens with a character’s confession on a grainy surveillance camera, which immediately knocks the list of suspects down to two, including any twist that might come along. What writer Russell Gerwitz doesn’t seem to understand is that a twist ending makes for suspense, and you can’t even have a twist ending when you narrow the options down to two.
A good mystery gives you a veritable avalanche of suspects; this chucks a melting snowball at you. To cover up for the thin plot, Avnet frantically edits scenes together to make it more exciting, which not only doesn’t work, but cuts scenes before Pacino and DeNiro can really come alive.
He also uses a lot of unnecessary tricks; there are tracking shots in the Coens’ “Burn After Reading” that follow the hollow footsteps of CIA paper pushers as they travel to and from the office of their superiors. That shot was a visual metaphor for the ineffectiveness and waste of the organization; here, Avnet aims the camera at the floor, seemingly chasing a light refraction the way a cat tries to catch a laser pointer.
His sloppy cuts ironically render Pacino’s and DeNiro’s scenes meaningless, and those scenes push the interesting cast of supporting actors out of the way. In the end, Pacino and Leguizamo get in some great one-liners, Gugino and Dennehy are horribly under-utilized, and we get only one genuinely entertaining scene between the two titans. It’s a crying shame because these two actually put in some of their best acting in years; DeNiro brought back his snarling venom normally reserved for Scorsese films, and Pacino even dropped those annoying “hoo-ha’s” and “whoa’s.”
Nevertheless, the utter lack of suspense, coupled with more stumbling ineptitude from Jon Avnet (who released “88 Minutes,” Al Pacino’s worst film to date, earlier this year) broke “Righteous Kill’s” leg before it managed to get out of the gate.