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Righteous Kill / Agent Bedhead
Film Reviews | September 13, 2008 | Comments ()
Let me first acknowledge that Righteous Kill, which will succeed or fail based solely on its marquee names, is a fairly critic-proof film because, to be perfectly honest, a lot of critics will hate this film. Their bias is quite understandable and, undoubtedly, partially influenced by the recent unholy union between director Jon Avnet and Al Pacino known as 88 Minutes, which, in some regards, generated enough hatred to spill over into their next consecutive pairing. This bad buzz was, perhaps, inevitable, but, this time around, the undeniable result is notches above 88 Minutes. Of course, Righteous Kill as a whole doesn’t even begin to compare with the previous Pacino and De Niro “couplings” of varying degree. These guys are two Brigantines that, for decades, have warily circled each other in the crime-filled waters of night. In Godfather II, the film’s split-generational approach kept them separated both in time and place. As for Heat, as good of a film as it was, the limited screen time that Pacino and De Niro actually shared left the audience with cinematic blueballs. Of their two scenes together, Heat’s climax never even showed the two actors’ faces at the same moment, but that other scene—a whole seven minutes of face-to-face conversation from across a table— was one of the greatest coffee-sharing moments in cinematic history. The filmmakers of Righteous Kill actually recognized that chemistry and performed variants at a restaurant, a bar, and at target practice, quite accordingly. These sequences are, remarkably, what kept this film from getting flushed into the cinematic sewer.
If I were to be overly blunt and more pretentious than usual when considering Righteous Kill, at this point, you would receive a predictable tirade about the glaring inferiority of several recent films starring either Pacino or De Niro over the past decade or so. Since we’re talking about two of the greatest actors of our time, and they’re finally together as bona fide costars that appear together in most of the film’s scenes, Righteous Kill would be held to that standard and had damn well better be stellar in every capacity. Otherwise, I’d be forced me to launch into the now-familiar critical position of declaring that, at this point in Pacino and De Niro’s respective careers, both actors are merely dialing in performances and collecting massive paychecks based only upon their former glory.
Fuck that. It’s not gonna happen here.
That particular little cliché has run its course and will be of no use here, and I think you’d expect more from Pajiba than for me to ironically achieve the requisite “scathing and bitchy” quotient on autopilot. Of course, my reason for all of this preemptive justification is that Righteous Kill is, on some levels, a very standard crime thriller and certainly not up to the standards within which De Niro and Pacino formerly dwelled. However—and this seems like a great leap to make—watching these two legends, on screen together and obviously loving it, totally makes the film’s shortcomings worth enduring. Their onscreen chemistry is undeniably awesome, and, since moviegoers have been dying to get these guys onscreen together, De Niro and Pacino are giving their audience what it wants. They’re totally putting out for us. It’s sort of a metaphysically and self-referential circle jerk. However, unlike the annual Clooney-Pitt-Damon-Roberts lovefest that is certain to be repeated yet again, Righteous Kill will likely be the last opportunity to see Pacino and De Niro on the big screen together. Forever.
As the story goes, Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino), are two 30-year veteran detectives in the NYPD Homicide Division. The partners are on the case of a serial killer, who isn’t a threat to law-abiding citizens but, instead, takes out child killers, pimps, and rapists, and other nasties. The notion of a vigilante street sweeper is nothing new, but this killer shows some originality with his calling card that, at one point, is fittingly shoved up the ass of a pedophile priest. (Now, that’s justice.) When Turk and Rooster fail to crack the case, and it becomes evident that most of the killer’s so-called victims have crossed paths with the “Lennon and McCartney” of the department, things begin to look rather suspicious. So, a few young gun partners, Det. Riley (Donnie Wahlberg) and Det. Perez (John Leguizamo), start their own investigation. It soon becomes clear to all that the killer is a rogue cop, and no one is above suspicion. Similarly, none of the detectives are far from the clutches of Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino), the forensics specialist who gets all hot over her work, which would be insulting if it wasn’t actually slightly amusing. Of these supporting players, Wahlberg is the strongest in his role, but, to Leguizamo’s credit, he actually departs from his usual curtain inhaling, rabid monkey approach and fully differentiates himself from the Benny Blanco persona of Carlito’s Way, in which he and Pacino were a very different sort of rival. Speaking of nemeses, this film’s presumptive villain, Spider, is ridiculously and laughingly portrayed by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. As a supposedly menacing kingpin drug dealer, NYC club owner, and money launderer, 50 Cent displays all the prowess of Rick Moranis, who, at this point, actually possesses more street cred.
Unfortunately, Righteous Kill has a fairly predictable plot and shoots most of its narrative load too early. The major problem, aside from Avnet’s distaste for pacing, is the script, which isn’t nearly as savvy as screenwriter Russell Gewirtz seems to believe. The film, as a whole, is a mere contemporary crime thriller with one of those obligatory twist endings, which rarely seem to work out as planned. Hell, ever since The Usual Suspects hit fanboy consciousness, plot twists rarely if ever surprise their audiences, and the continued existence of M. Night Shyamalan causes the very notion of a “twist ending” to inspire much rolling of eyes. In this case, the twist feels like a sucker punch, which might have been reduced to a tap on the jaw by way of effective storytelling. Further, the story takes place in the Five Boroughs, but Brooklyn-born Avnet doesn’t even trouble himself with conjuring up a New York atmosphere, which is a shame because De Niro and Pacino so readily ooze the strong yet irregular pulse of New York in their own studied mannerisms. So, when the film’s flaws and multitudes of red herrings become apparent, as they do, it’s a lot easier to dismiss than if different actors had stepped into Turk and Rooster’s gumshoes.
As much of a cop-out as this sounds, Righteous Kill is worth seeing but only for the headlining stars. Normally, this sort of statement would really piss me off, but Pacino and De Niro are so damn riveting that an exception simply must be made. De Niro inhabits Turk to such a level that his brooding, obsessive character’s negative energy is tempered only by Pacino’s Rooster, whose animated wise-cracking and intentionally circular wit keep the pair’s magnetism in check and in favor with their boss (Brian Dennehy). These maneuvers are something that should have been explored more in depth by way of the script, but, by their own accord, the understated De Niro and overstated Pacino bounce off each other remarkably well. Their characters display one of those genuinely unspoken bonds, although Rooster, during his moments of emotion, tends to vocalize his affection: “You’re my pahtner. You’re my role mahdel.” Surprisingly, this line doesn’t even arrive with any sense of homoeroticism. Perhaps this duo’s rapport works because these guys really understand each other intuitively after their long careers, both as their characters and also as Pacino and De Niro. It sounds schmaltzier than it actually appears onscreen, but what’s going on is something difficult to put into words. Whatever these guys are doing, it’s getting done right, and their combined talent fills in many of the errant gaps in their character’s scripted backgrounds, emotions, and differing psychologies. As a result, on a lot of levels, this film isn’t even about the characters at all but about the two men within.
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can be found at agentbedhead.com.
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