Righteous Kill’s sole selling point is the teaming of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino—billed as “the two greatest actors of their generation” in the TV trailers (I’m curious where Peter O’Toole fits into this equation). What the film’s advertising fails to mention is that theirs isn’t the picture’s only reunion, as Pacino and director Jon Avnet worked together on the egregiously terrible 88 Minutes (2008).
The biggest disappointment involved with Righteous Kill isn’t that the two leads phone-in their performances (we don’t even get a patented Pacino shout-a-thon). It’s that the movie is never as unintentionally hilarious as 88 Minutes. There are no exploding cars, no babe-magnet octogenarians, no runaway fire trucks and no murderous lesbians. What the two movies do have in common is their convoluted, largely incoherent nature. Righteous Kill offers a plot that’s just as pointless and inane as that of 88 Minutes, but it’s wrapped up in a self-serious tone due to its “important” actors.
The movie follows two aging detectives, Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino)—one can only think the latter is so named due to his parrot-like haircut. The film starts with Turk’s confession to the crime of knocking off a handful of criminals vigilante-style, before flashing back in order to show how we got to this point. The movie’s insistence at attempting to be nonlinear causes all kinds of problems, not the least of which is Avnet’s inability to piece these flashbacks together coherently. It takes a good third of the movie just to get your bearings. On top of that, the idea that he and writer Russell Gewirtz—who somehow wrote Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006)—have given you the answer to the film’s big mystery in the first 10 minutes becomes such an obvious red herring that it’s none too difficult to figure out who the culprit really is. After that, it’s only a matter of the rest of the cast figuring it out a good 45 minutes after the audience already has.
Add in subplots about a couple of other detectives (John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg), a kinky forensics detective (Carla Gugino) and her awkward sexual relationship with Turk and a shady club owner (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson)—all of which go nowhere—and the movie becomes an exercise in convoluted incoherence and a pale sketch of half-baked Scorsese by way of The Usual Suspects (1995).
But the real appeal is supposed to be De Niro and Pacino back together on screen for the first time since Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). And while they can be excellent actors when given some material to work with, the movie follows their recent trends of just cruising on their reputations and on-screen personas—which is especially disappointing after De Niro’s turn in Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust (2007). Neither seem more interested in anything other than a paycheck. I can’t blame them, however, since even at their best they couldn’t have saved this stinker of a film.
Avnet does the actors no favors, seeming to constantly dwell on the pair’s glory days during the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was a mistake he made in 88 Minutes as well, making Pacino a womanizing heartthrob who instead came across as a creepy old man. Righteous Kill opens with the two firing assault rifles and pumping iron. This, combined with the film’s tough-guy posturing, makes them seem like little kids playing dress up. While all the phony machismo that’s grafted onto the twosome leads to the film’s best unintentional laugh—featuring a Pacino body double jumping a banister and going down a hole—it’s ultimately tiresome. It’s a pity, too, since the two are worthy of better. But then again, their fans would probably like to see a little more prudence when picking their roles. Rated R for violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and brief drug use.