Righteous Kill

(2008) ** R
101 min. Overture Films. Director: Jon Avnet. Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, 50 Cent, Donnie Wahlberg, Carla Gugino.

/content/films/3216/2.jpgAs a connoisseur of acting and an Italian-American, I've always thought of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as being like unto gods. The two played father and son (across time) in the epochal '70s film The Godfather Part II, but only shared the screen 21 years later in Michael Mann's Heat. Even then, they shared only one significant dialogue scene, and some fans spread unsubstantiated rumors that, through the magic of editing, the actors had never even been on set at the same time. So Righteous Kill, the new thriller that emphatically pairs the acting legends, qualifies as a historic event, whether it's any good or not. Director Jon Avnet (88 Minutes) must be riding high, secure in the knowledge that even if everyone thinks his new movie blows, it will be a film often revisited by aficionados of modern acting.

Well, Righteous Kill does sorta blow, and yet I'd be lying if I didn't personally consider it a must-see. The twain meet in a mess of a serial-killa thrilla that only sporadically demonstrates the intelligence that might shake the stars out of their doldrums. In plot terms, the film gets its only juice from the same kind of leg-pulling screenwriter Russell Gewirtz pulled off in the superior Inside Man (thanks largely to director Spike Lee). Gewirtz's mystery invites at least a little bit of guesswork (a little bit of narrative cheating going a long way), but if you've seen enough movies to care about De Niro and Pacino, you've also no doubt seen enough movies to guess how the climax is bound to play out.

"Pit bull on crack" Turk (De Niro) and wisecracking Rooster (Pacino) are partners of almost thirty years on the NYPD. They're as different as chalk and cheese (Turk's a baseball coach; Rooster's a chess master), but they've learned to complement one another. With one last murder case open before they retire, the two find themselves on edge. A serial killer's swath of terror has opened an old wound: the partners' shared knowledge that one of them planted evidence to secure a conviction. That pivotal moment alters and defines the relationship between the two men, who care for each other without ever breaking their façades of tough-guy bravado. Dealing honestly with whom these men were and whom they have become would have made a fascinating cop drama or, potentially, a great thriller as well. But this actor's showcase asks the actors not to rise to the level of strong material, but to elevate the usual plot-first, character-second grist they've been sleeping through for years.

Understandably, these two don't seem very interested in the task set before them. Their performances are the seasoned work of old pros, and each has moments of prodigious magnetism (DeNiro in the running confession delivered straight into the camera that provides the film's structural hook, Pacino in several surgically delivered comic smart bombs). But each mostly busies himself making sure that he comes off to best effect, putting forward comfortingly familiar aspects of persona that will reduce the risk of the other man upstaging him. In acting terms, the two have, perhaps inadvertently, slipped out of representational acting and into presentational acting, from naturalistic realism to a self-aware indication to the audience of character and "drama" (I told you I was an acting connoisseur).

But you try making this story natural or realistic. For all the banter (the film's most entertaining element), Righteous Kill is a movie constantly trying to convince us of something at least faintly ridiculous. One can, with a sigh, suspend one's disbelief for the hardly fresh idea of a rogue cop turned serial killer, but the mechanics of that hidden killer's behavior and that of the cops trying to roust him don't stand up to scrutiny. Gewirtz's script also expends little energy to justify the cultural oddity of a smoking hot forensic investigator (played by 37-year-old Carla Gugino) dating a grumpy, grey detective (played by 65-year-old De Niro). It could happen (and yes, he's a hothead and she likes it rough), but it's another in a compounding series of "stretches" in the story.

Having De Niro and Pacino as leads guarantees supporting actors of a high caliber. Aside from Gugino, we get John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg (Avnet's Boomtown) as partners sniffing around the same case, De Niro's buddy Barry Primus as a police psychologist, Malachy McCourt as an abusive priest, and Brian Dennehy as the police lieutenant (call it a reverse Palin: casting 70-year-old Dennehy to help make De Niro and particularly the unnatural-looking 68-year-old Pacino seem younger; presumably, these cops are in their 50s). In isolated moments, Righteous Kill touches on the toll of being on the job, particularly its loneliness (the most interesting moment: a voice-over in which De Niro comments that "the only ones paying attention" to the war on crime are the cops and the criminals), but ultimately, Avnet's film is a half-baked thriller that gets by on its historical interest.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 1/6/2009

Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment

Anchor Bay's Blu-ray disc of Righteous Kill (mirrored on DVD) allows collectors to own a piece of screen history. The transfer is superb: sharp, colorful, and spotless, it's slick sheen makes it to the home theater fully intact, with just a hint of grain to remind you you're watching a film. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix preserves the theatrical experience in unbeatable high-res audio.

Overture Films and Anchor Bay have teamed for a few useful bonus features. First up is a commentary with producer/director Jon Avnet. Avnet is understandably defensive (though surprisingly good-natured) about the film's critical reception. Avnet's focus is mostly interpretive of plot, characters, and theme, but he also discusses his approach, the locations, and the tight budget and schedule (only 35 days). Most intriguingly, Avnet mentions several times the uncredited script contributions of Paul Brickman (Risky Business).

Next is "The Investigation: An In-Depth Look at Righteous Kill" (14:23, HD). Who wouldn't want a behind-the-scenes look at Robert De Niro and Al Pacino working side by side (especially in glorious HD)? What's offered here is more tantalizing than satisfying: some B-roll of the stars having fun at work and mostly a slew of interviews about the film, its making, the characters, and the actors, with one notably absent star: Pacino doesn't participate in the interviews. Instead, you'll find everyone else: Avnet, De Niro, John Leguizamo, Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino, Donniw Wahlberg, Rob Dyrdek, Curtis Jackson, Trilby Glover, screenwriter Russell Gewirtz, and technical advisor Neil Carter.

The special "The Thin Blue Line: An Exploration of Cops & Criminals" (19:05, HD) deals with police corruption and a case in which a bad cop killed; both topics stretch the connection to Righteous Kill, but it is an eye-opening documentary all the same, with surprisingly frank former officers telling it like they see it. Particpants include police expert Richard Rivera, author Philip Bonifacio, author Samuel Clark, and Miami Dade County Assistant State Attorney David Waksman.

Lastly, we get the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:29, HD). It's a decent package, and if you're half the De Niro/Pacino fan I am, picking up a copy isn't even a question. The excellence of the Blu-ray transfer sweetens the deal considerably.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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