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On DVD: Righteous Kill

By Willie Krischke — September 20, 2008

Pretty much any discussion of the greatest actors of our time will include the names Pacino and De Niro. This makes me wonder about the phrase “our time,”  since neither actor has won, or even been nominated for, an Oscar in 15 years, despite making almost 50 movies between them in that time. In contrast, between ’73 and ’80, they had nine nominations and two wins between them, both wins belonging to De Niro. You could say their best years are behind them.  Still, the idea of a Pacino/De Niro double billing is likely to get just about anyone salivating.

This ostensibly magical combination has happened before. Twice, actually. They were both in “The Godfather Part II,”  though they never shared the screen, because De Niro played Pacino’s father in flashbacks. Then in “Heat,”  De Niro was the crook that cop Pacino was chasing. That time, they had one excellent scene together, besides an action/chase finale. That was it, but it was intense, and memorable.

Now, in “Righteous Kill,” they’re pretty much inseparable. There’s hardly a scene in the movie with one and not the other. Now by a certain logic, this ought to add up to movie magic, but… alas. A certain different logic rules the day instead. While it doesn’t help that “Righteous Kill” has a pretty run of the mill cop thriller plot, complete with a tired framing device and a twist any attentive viewer will see coming for a mile, that’s not really the problem here. At least not the main problem. I think, instead, it’s that these two actors, each great on their own, are terrible together. While they’ve both made careers out of starring in the same kinds of movies, they really are very different actors. And they pretty much cancel each other out.

Pacino is verbose. De Niro is tight-lipped. Pacino barks, De Niro never –ever – raises his voice. Pacino bluffs; De Niro keeps a poker face. Pacino storms into a room, De Niro waits in the corner with the lights out. Pacino tells jokes when he’s angry, De Niro when he wants you to trust him. Pacino was born smart and used his brains to get off the street; De Niro got smart on the street. When he’s not playing “Al Pacino,” Pacino does Shakespeare; it suits his verbal gifts. De Niro, when he’s not a cop or a criminal, does comedy. It suits his sense of timing.

All throughout “Righteous Kill,” I felt like De Niro was talking too much, and Pacino not enough. Each seems to be emulating the other’s style, to horrible effect. I don’t know if this is because the actors were too afraid to step on each other’s toes, if they like each other or hate each other.   But their scenes are flat.   There is chemisty between them, but it’s the kind that turns vinegar and baking soda into air and water.  John Leguizamo, for heaven’s sake, brings more life to the movie than either of its stars.

Pacino and De Niro are NYPD partners who take one last big case before retirement, hoping to go out like Ted Williams.   That New York cops would deify a Boston guy is just one of several goofs in the script, but anyway.   Seems there’s a serial killer on the loose, whose calling card –literally – is a short ditty he writes for each of his victims and leaves at the scene.   All evidence indicates the killer is a cop, and in fact, De Niro confesses to the crimes on a security video as the movie starts.As the two visit one dead body after another –taking regular breaks to kick the crap out of Curtis Jackson, aka Fifty Cent – the other guys in MCU start to suspect De Niro.   And Pacino makes a bucket of money off of them, because he, like we, know that De Niro is the last guy it could possibly be.  After all, you don’t confess in the first ten minutes of a movie to a crime you actually committed.   It just isn’t done.

There really isn’t much to “Righteous Kill.”   The plot is predictable, the direction steady but not interesting.  The writing tries to have flair a la Tarantino – at one point our boys discuss the cultural significance of Underdog, and then there’s the Ted Williams thing – but falls short.   And the performances are bland.    Really, that one scene in “Heat” packs more of a punch that all of “Righteous Kill” put together, and it’s a far more interesting movie in just about every way.   Go rent it instead.

Recommended

  • if you just have to see every movie starring Al Pacino and/or Robert De Niro.  (To its credit, it was a darn sight better than “88 Minutes.”)
  • If you’re in the mood for predictable, run of the mill cop drama with predictable, run of the mill performances.

Not Recommended

  • if you’ve been waiting a long time for a whole movie like that one scene in “Heat.”
  • If you agree with me that both of these actors did their best work more than 30 years ago, and have been banking on that work ever since.
  • If you never liked Al Pacino or Robert De Niro anyway.
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