Righteous Kill (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Righteous Kill Poster

Righteous Kill is the third movie in which screen icons Robert De Niro and Al Pacino both appear, but only the second in which they share screen time. 13 years ago, Michael Mann scored a coup by filming the first scene with these two sitting opposite one another. Now, director Jon Avnet, rather than accepting sloppy seconds, has attempted to one-up Mann by having De Niro and Pacino share not only a handful of scenes, but pairing them on-screen for almost every scene in a 100-minute motion picture. Unfortunately, the hook of having the two Corleones together is just about the only reason to see this otherwise lackluster police thriller. The script and direction are what one might expect from any of a number of similarly written productions that bypass theaters on the expressway to cable and/or DVD. It's only the star power of the leads that accords Righteous Kill the honor of a 2000+ theater release when it deserves a more ignominious fate.

Detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) have been friends and partners for many years. Their latest case has them hunting a serial killer/vigilante whose victims are violent criminals who get off on technicalities. Neither Turk nor Rooster is terribly motivated to find this man, since they sympathize with him. In fact, the movie's framing device, which features De Niro "confessing" into a video camera – suggests that he may be the killer. Keeping Turk and Rooster honest are Detectives Perez (John Leguizamo) and Riley (Donnie Wahlberg), who are also working the case.

One of the most apparent problems with Righteous Kill is that there's not a lot of story to begin with. We get copious amounts of dialogue between Turk and Rooster, but there's not a lot of substance in the words. The ending, which includes a revelation that I guess is supposed to be a twist (although savvy viewers will see it coming), is ludicrous, and recalls the ridiculous climax to the previous Pacino/Avnet collaboration, 88 Minutes. The film also resorts to the weariest of clichés: the bad guy holds the good guy at gun point and explains everything to him. Avnet and screenwriter Russell Gerwitz try their best at misdirection by employing as many red herrings as possible, but it's really not that difficult to guess where the movie is going. The script simply isn't smart enough to keep viewers guessing unless they're not paying attention.

One of my complaints about Heat was the blandness of the centerpiece De Niro/Pacino scene. One could make the same comment about Righteous Kill. The actors' scenes are ordinary, and the roles could have been filled by anyone. Neither De Niro nor Pacino does a bad job; they both earn their paychecks. But this will not go down on either of their filmographies as a performance to remember. There's no intensity. They're both in comfortable territory and nothing in the screenplay challenges them to let it all hang out. One could argue that it has been about a decade since either actor has turned in a compelling dramatic performance, so perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that no one will be mentioning Oscars in association with Righteous Kill. Still, one can't help but be disappointed that, after having overcome the considerable logistical and financial hurdles of bringing these two men together, the result is so forgettable.

Certainly, Avnet must shoulder some of the blame. 88 Minutes showed that he has little feel for thrillers and, while Righteous Kill is neither as over-the-top nor as blatantly cheesy, the director does nothing to improve upon the tepid material or make it interesting for reasons other than De Niro and Pacino. The actors, while not in top form, speak their lines with more conviction than those words and phrases deserve. As the film drags into its second hour, one wonders what about the script attracted them to this project. This isn't just generic material; it's generic material with a dumb ending, and the director is a journeyman not a craftsman. For fans of police and crime thrillers, Righteous Kill was a much anticipated title on the fall schedule. Its failure to live up to even modest expectations is a blow. There's nothing righteous to be found here.

Righteous Kill (United States, 2008)

Director: Jon Avnet
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Curtis Jackson, Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg, Brian Dennehy
Screenplay: Russell Gerwitz
Cinematography: Denis Lenoir
Music: Ed Shearmur
U.S. Distributor: Overture Films
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2008-09-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1