A meeting between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro was teased in the 1995 Michael Mann crime saga, “Heat.” With only a single scene to share, the titans of method acting left fans unfulfilled, craving more screentime with these superstars. “Righteous Kill” is the pairing the faithful have been drooling for, so it makes perfect sense that Martin Scorsese was brought in to direct. Who better than a true master of cinema, a veritable big screen lion tamer, to properly manage the performance electricity between these two Hollywood knights?
What’s that? No Scorsese? Would Jon Avnet do? You know, the fellow who directed “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “88 Minutes,” the absolute worst Al Pacino film if we lived in a bizarro world where “Simone” never existed. Avnet is perhaps the last guy on a list of suitable directors to helm a Pacino/De Niro face off, but here we are, and “Righteous Kill” is expectedly ripe with flaws and teeming with idiocy.
After decades on the job for the NYPD, Detectives Turk (Robert De Niro) and Rooster (Al Pacino) have been pushed into psychological introspection against their wishes. When a poem-loving serial killer with a fetish for knocking off felons is discovered, the two aged cops are called in to investigate the murders. Trying to shake down the local crooks (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) for information, Turk and Rooster learn the serial killer is accomplishing exactly what the rest of the force is unable to do, challenging their ideals and the very core of their job, while raising the suspicion of their co-workers (John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg, and Carla Gugino).
When I think of hardball police procedural cinema, I don’t think of Jon Avnet. The director doesn’t have the visual vocabulary for this genre, and “Righteous” shows the strain of inexperience in almost every frame.
Written by Russell Gewirtz (“Inside Man”), “Righteous” is a murder mystery that commences with the viewer tossed into the deep end of the storytelling ocean. Right from the opening titles the audience is shoved into this violent world of names, faces, and motives. Avnet loses control of his picture immediately, electing to use chaos as a way to keep the script’s turns guarded, refusing an entry point to the narrative and to our guides, Turk and Rooster. It renders the picture nearly impossible to follow, with truckloads of information regurgitated early and never sorted out. Gewritz writes with a tough guy tongue, dutifully conjuring his line-up of New York cop clichés and left-hook plotting, but Avnet has no clue how to weave a thriller together, which leaves “Righteous” unbelievably sloppy and purposefully mystifying.
It’s only a matter of time before it becomes crystal clear why Avnet is so terrified to communicate the plot in a clean, inviting manner.
Talk of story and directing seems to miss the point of “Righteous,” and that’s to see De Niro and Pacino play some actorly paddycake. The pros deliver the kind of performances expected of them: De Niro the tightwad bruiser and Pacino the overly-tanned Jerry Lewis figure. I hate to burst the overinflated balloon, but the men share little chemistry, and their improvisations just plain reek (at one point, Pacino spews a monologue about “Underdog”). Avnet doesn’t know what to do with the guys, so De Niro and Pacino head off into their own directions, furthering the film’s disorganized agenda. Obviously brought together by the paycheck and not the material, the die-hards will probably retain a few jollies just watching these legends work the frame together. Overall, it’s a waste of time for both performers, and you can see the disinterest in their eyes grow with every passing scene.
It doesn’t take a doctorate in cop cinema to deduce the twist of “Righteous” early on. In fact, Avnet is such a dreadful director that it’s almost impossible to miss what’s coming. Much like “88 Minutes,” “Righteous” is working too hard to keep eyes off the true killer, working itself into a bewildering, misdirecting lather, leaving the most obvious suspect accidentally out in the open as a result. Of course, the movie is so lethargic and incompetently made, it doesn’t really matter. Any potential investment in the story has been jettisoned long ago, leaving “Righteous Kill” a novelty film, and a terrible one at that.