Monday, Sept. 15, 2008

Rightous Kill is Not So Bad

By David Luhrssen
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Robert De Niro and Al Pacino were among the fresh new faces of ‘70s Hollywood. But the towering dramatic actors of that now fabled decade never appeared together in a film until the ‘90s and then only once, in Michael Mann’s tense crime drama Heat (1995). In Heat, they presided over parallel plot lines as master criminal and master detective and converged only late in the story. In Righteous Kill, De Niro and Pacino are on the same team and in scene after scene.

It’s a pleasure seeing them together, a delight they appear to share. Too bad Righteous Kill is not a brilliant film; fortunately it’s not as bad as most reviewers say. One or two of the psychological twists seem poorly grounded and director Jon Avnet denies us the pleasure of a coherent, gradually unfolding narrative. Instead, Righteous Kill is constructed like a Cubist painting from shards of incident, some of them bleeding across time. Parts of the end are visible before we see the beginning or the middle. Eventually, the outlines of the main characters and the scenario hove into view. Avnet juggles the pieces ably enough.

In Righteous Kill, Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) are a pair of NYPD detectives, partners who cracked many cases and lost a few to clever lawyers and clueless courts. They will stoop to plant evidence against a slippery criminal; they play rough. When a series of especially bad miscreants—rapists, brutal pimps and so on—are murdered, with four-line poems about the dead criminals left at the scene, suspicion mounts that one of the detectives is the serial killer.

The plot of Righteous Kill is a tightly wound mechanism that depends on surprise. It may not hold up to a second viewing. More enjoyable than the story are the two men at its center, with their adrenaline rush of violence when danger strikes, their undercurrent of working class resentment, the way the smut of crime clings to them. Pacino looks out at the mean streets from his creased face with big soulful eyes and a show of streetwise candor; De Niro beams with that lurid glower, that wariness unable to entirely conceal his shifting moods of amusement and bemusement.

Since Heat, De Niro and Pacino have been in terrible movies, many considerably less worthwhile than Righteous Kill. Let’s hope a brilliant filmmaker, a Martin Scorcese, brings them together for reunion fully worthy of their talent. For now, Righteous Kill will do.

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