Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Carla Gugino
Directed by: Jon Avnet (“88 Minutes”)
Written by: Russell Gewirtz (“Inside Man”)
One of my favorite Robert De Niro-with-a-badge movie moments comes courtesy of the 1997 crime drama “Cop Land.” A pudgy Sylvester Stallone interrupts a moustach’ed De Niro in his NYPD investigator’s office during his lunch break wanting to help expose a unit of crooked cops despite previous uncertainties. In a most hardhearted way, De Niro stands up and shouts three simple words to let him know his opportunity has been squandered: “You blew it!”
That’s the exact same message someone needs to convey to director Jon Avnet (88 Minutes) and screenwriter Russell Gewirtz (Inside Man) for their new film “Righteous Kill.” With Robert De Niro and Al Pacino at their disposal (their first film together since sharing the screen for a few brief minutes in 1995’s “Heat”), you could presume that Avnet and Gewirtz lost focus thinking about the 14 Academy Award nominations and three wins between their two stars or how 100 hundred years from now, history will undoubtedly look back and consider them the preeminent actors of their generation, but that would be letting them off too easy. Instead, the filmmakers simply choked.
In “Righteous Kill,” veteran NYPD detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) are on the trail of a serial killer who shoots criminals that have slipped through the judicial system. From physically abusive pimps to predatory Catholic priests, no one with a shady past is safe from the killer’s wrath.
But when the murders start linking back to Turk, officers from another precinct (Leguizamo and Wahlberg) begin thinking that the 30-year veteran of the force could actually be responsible for the point-blank murders. While Pacino plays the role of the more seemily professional officer, Gewirtz writes De Niro’s character as a short-tempered “pitbull on cocaine” who spends his free time coaching little league softball with an iron fist and participating in the masochist fantasies of a lovely forensics investigator (Gugino).
The strong bond between Turk and Rooster is evident, which makes “Kill” bearable enough when De Niro and Pacino aren’t sounding so much like cops. Of course, we’ve seen them in these roles before, but here they are merely going through the motions and what is expected of them. Plus, the mystery behind the murders is so obvious and carelessly written, it almost emerges as a joke. Imagine hearing a gun shot, walking into a room, and seeing two guys standing over a dead body. One guy has a smoking gun in his hand and is covered in the victim’s blood. Then, other guy admits to the murder. That is literally the depth of Gewirtz’s script.
The bottom line is that “Righteous Kill” has high expectations riding solely on the much-anticipated reunion of De Niro and Pacino. But with a paper-thin who-done-it storyline and underdeveloped characters, their second cinematic encounter becomes more of a second thought. While the bullets hit their marks, not much else makes a memorable statement and we’re left longing for the days when Frank Serpicio and Jake La Motta once commanded the big screen.