De Niro and Pacino aren't better together
By Fareed Ben-Youssef
Published: Thursday, September 25th, 2008

The moment in Michael Mann's crime epic "heat" when Al Pacino and Robert De Niro share the screen for the first time in their long careers is nothing short of electric. In a film famous for its intense action sequences, their quiet scene together plays like an emotional punch to the gut. After seeing this brief encounter, I wondered, "What would happen if these two greats went toe to toe for an entire movie?" Apparently, nothing much, if "Righteous Kill" is any indication. The film is a disappointment on nearly every level, never terrible but thoroughly mediocre. Frankly, both its stars and the audience deserve better.

The plot is simple enough. Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) are two disgraced NYPD detectives facing the strangest homicide case of their careers. A serial killer is running rampant on the streets of New York City, killing career scumbags or lowlifes who managed to escape justice. Each of the victims has connections to Turk and Rooster, and the force begins to view the partners with suspicion. The mystery hinges on a single question: Who is the unknown killer who seems to be doing the police's job for them?

The story, penned by Russell Gerwitz, fits into the vigilante genre that dates back to the mid-'70s. Many of the film's problems can be traced back to its overly simplistic screenplay. Though characters often crack jokes about Turk and Rooster's advancing ages, the pair act like young super cops. By refusing to parallel the story of aging cops with the lives of its aging stars, the screenwriter robs his story of the potential to be a poignant look at two legends that have faded over the years.

Still, Gerwitz does manage to write one clever moment that typifies the closeness of a police partnership. While the two partners assess a gruesome crime scene, they marvel at the sight. After the camera cuts away from the cops' shocked faces, it reveals that the cops were actually using the superlatives to describe a huge plasma screen hovering over the corpse lying in front of them. This little moment highlights a unique bond between cops that mixes brotherly respect with an ever-present humor. Unfortunately, De Niro and Pacino are nowhere near the scene: It instead features a spot-on John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg, who play rival partners. That's right: The relatively obscure supporting cast steals the show completely from its much more famous stars.

Given the quality of their co-stars' performances, Leguizamo and Wahlberg evidently did not have to try very hard. Though a fellow cop describes De Niro's Turk as a loose cannon, a "pit bull on crack," the actor never exudes any menace as the character. De Niro seemed more threatening in "Meet the Fockers" than he does at any point in this film. This is especially disappointing considering that this "Taxi Driver" actor crafted the manic Travis Bickle, whose cold stare hinted at a deep inner rage. The actor forsakes the nuance of his earlier films for a series of forced grimaces and mumbled profanity.

Even more so than De Niro, Pacino stands guilty of resorting to a series of incredulous, wide-eyed expressions in place of restrained acting. As Turk's partner Rooster, Pacino is relegated to the role of the screwy sidekick who antagonizes criminals and cops with his flatly delivered jokes. At one point, he mentions how his colleagues stare at surveillance monitors, "like a couple of hawks ... GAY hawks!" Though one can nitpick about which actor delivers the more underwhelming performance, both actors regurgitate their lines with the same look of utter indifference.

Unfortunately, director John Avnet seems to have in pinned the success of his movie entirely on his two leads, presenting scene after scene of extreme close-ups to showcase their glazed-over expressions. Avnet proves to be just as derivative as his stars thanks to his phenomenal lack of subtlety. When Turk states that he has lost his faith, the film cuts to a shot of a huge cross looming over a church. Understated visual cues are a rarity "Righteous Kill."

Beyond his heavy-handed visual style, Avnet continues to underestimate the intelligence of his audience through his overuse of flashbacks. Each of these grainy sequences ends with a key phrase echoed repeatedly. Had the plot been a labyrinthine affair, this might have been necessary, but let's face it, "Righteous Kill" has all the complexity of a bad TV movie on Lifetime. The director's often redundant filmmaking helps sap any compelling life or energy from the production.

Overall, "Righteous Kill" never amounts to more than a shallow summer movie disguised as a fall prestige film. If you're looking for a movie with a surprisingly good John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg, then "Righteous Kill" might be worth seeing. But if you're looking for a classic De Niro-Pacino flick, stick with "Heat," as their latest is bound to disappoint.

Two out of five paws

Leguizamo and Wahlberg deliver fresh, charismatic performances as buddy cops.- Both Pacino and De Niro deliver stale, shallow performances as buddy cops. Director John Avnet is no Michael Mann and shoots the movie as generically as possible Vigilante story by "Inside Man" scribe feels far too simplistic and by-the-numbers