Friday, September 26, 2008

408 - Righteous Kill review

I’d call “Righteous Kill” a marketing gimmick, but perhaps that would be an illogical complaint. Virtually any major release is greenlit only after one important question is satisfied: how do we market it?

In this case, it’s the pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, those great screen legends who can seemingly do no wrong, except when they do. For whatever reason, they’ve joined forces for this dreck, a by-the-numbers cop thriller that can’t even get from 6 to 7 without jumping ahead to 12 and then back to 4. Even big shot actors need their kitchens remodeled, I suppose.

De Niro is the film’s protagonist, edging out Pacino for the most screen time and crushing him in watchability. They play two NYPD homicide detectives a decade past mandatory retirement (my detail, not the film’s), obnoxiously named Turk and Rooster, respectively.

The film begins with a video of Turk confessing to a series of murders, though we’re pretty certain that’s not the case, as the camera goes to great lengths to avoid letting us see who’s actually committing the crimes, and a habit that transfers over to dialogue, names, and anything else that would keep us from being able to relax and enjoy the story. Allow me to quote myself (from my “Hancock” review) when I say “if a film wants to jerk us around this much, it needs to be much better than this.” No points for figuring out who the real culprit is, seeing as there are only about three non-De Niro characters of any importance.

Flashback and the pair are investigating a serial killer who’s bumping off criminals and leaving poetry behind, although I really shouldn’t use the word “investigating;” more like talking about. A note to mystery and thriller writers: these things only generate suspense and interest effectively when the characters solve the crime, not when they hang out and get lucky enough to have the culprit volunteer a confession. Movies provide an escape for most, and we want to pretend that the police have some minor interest in solving serious crimes.

Director Jon Avnet doesn’t appear to have a clue how to stage drama or string together a gripping narrative, something that won’t come as a surprise that saw his thriller “88 Minutes,” released earlier this year and also starring Pacino. To its credit, “Righteous Kill” is like “Vertigo” when compared to “88 Minutes,” though that’s not exactly high praise. The editing and camera work is choppy and convoluted, while the script is encumbered with pointless dead ends, such as Turk’s sado-masochistic girlfriend and a lame chess metaphor.

But a spectacularly messy narrative alone doesn’t make “Righteous Kill” standout as a failure, as films with that failing perpetually occupy at least one slot at the cinema year-round. What’s notably ruinous here is the severely underwritten and subsequently lifeless partnership between De Niro and Pacino’s characters. Friends for 30 years, the sense of camaraderie between the two wheezes through dull sequences and trite “what if” conversations. Exchanges that should be poignant instead feel noticeably boilerplate. The two actors shared barely a few minutes of screen time in Michael Mann’s “Heat,” and their few moments there contained more resonance than everything here multiplied several times over. And in “Heat” they were enemies.

De Niro somehow manages to come out relatively safe. Not only does his physique extol the virtues of hiring a personal trainer, he delivers one of those understated performances that imbue the character with pathos when other actors would overdo it.

Other actors like Pacino, for example, a supremely talented thespian who hasn’t bothered to hit a different note for at least a decade. Pushing 70, playing second fiddle, and looking as if he hasn’t slept for more than four hours at any given point in his entire life, he primarily serves to remind us of the pratfalls of stunt casting.

2 out of 5


Adam Ross said...

"Pushing 70, playing second fiddle, and looking as if he hasn’t slept for more than four hours at any given point in his entire life, he primarily serves to remind us of the pratfalls of stunt casting."

I read this line three times, I love it! It's getting to the point where Pacino is actually hard to look at.

Ramin said...

Wow, not a single good thing to say about this movie? It's really a shame when two talented actors are put together on a weak script to serve as a "marketing gimmick" as you said.

On an unrelated note, have you reviewed any more Cohen-brothers' films? I just saw "Fargo" for the first time today, and I loved it (of course).

Toto said...

Aging gracefully. Hard to do in real life. Even harder on screen. Pacino proves it ...

James said...

Adam: Thanks! It's easy to see why he was cast in "Insomnia," as he looks like he has a severe case. I keep rooting for him to do something killer because it sucks to see him only star in dreck.

Ramin: I haven't reviewed any more yet, though I still intend to cover them all. I might rewrite my "Barton Fink" blurb, cause that has stuck with me like I can't believe. You've got to check that out, if the Japanese are selling it.

Toto: Burn! I feel sort of bad for Pacino. A screen legend whose age has brought him to a place where he can only get a payday doing these stupid cop roles that he's 18 years too old to do. I feel bad about slamming someone for their looks, but when talking about movie stars it's hard not to pay attention.