Director Jon Avnet is a brave man indeed. He best look outside the house to see whether Martin Scorsese or Sidney Lumet have sent in a few boys to rough him up, or check the post to confirm whether Francis Ford Coppola has mailed him a well-wrapped trout. Because after getting two of the greatest actors of a fading generation finally spending active screen-time together in a film -- a coup none of the aforementioned angry filmmaker mob ever managed, despite directing each actor to individual highs -- Avnet's made a right royal mess of things, and Righteous Kill is an utter disappointment.
Despite all critical distancing from subject, it is a challenging assignment, having to review the first film ever starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino playing off each other. Seminal legends both, just the prospect of them duking it out has us licking our chops -- even though both of them have become hackneyed shadows of their own self, milking mostly banal roles over the last decade.
So we sit there and wait: for a frenzied Pacino to explode into a ovation-demanding monologue; for De Niro to wickedly grin, that gleam in his eye out-sinistering all others. Which isn't fair, of course. It would be too much of a gimmick to have these two icons trade in their totemistic glory-points.
Yet at least that would have been fascinating. An acting masterclass, even completely devoid of script, would certainly have been more watchable than this plodding, predictable pile of nothingness masquerading as a police drama. It is hard to fathom how Russell Gewirtz, the screenwriter behind the deliciously crisp and teasingly twisty heist film Inside Man, could have come up with this two-man tripe, seeped in clunky dialogue and cringeworthy attempts at wry humour.
The plot is as basic as crime drama gets, featuring two aging cops going after a serial killer who writes really, really awful rhymes. The police department surmises, with evident justification, that the killer is a man on the force. Very early on, we are given a clear indication as to which of these old-timers has something to hide, this runs through the film's excessively choppy narrative, and then, the third act tosses up a twist that you see coming from miles away. By the time the decidedly hot Carla Gugino storms into a hospital bed and shows a photograph to a witness, but the director pointedly avoids showing the audience the pic, the jig is well and truly up -- and laughably so.
The concept of disillusioned cops turning vigilantes has been explored a lot in the recent past -- Ben Affleck's chilling directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, doing rather well with the subject -- and it is surprising to see these two seasoned performers falling for a script so obvious.
The characters are very thinly written, as if character traits like 'rage' and 'frustration' were scribbled on big boards with felt markers, and the dialogue is calculated to appeal to fans of the actors -- complete with a Drity Harry quote, and Al repeatedly referring to Bob as his idol -- which might have been entertaining, had it only been clever.
How does the Dynamic Duo do? Honestly, they're just about average. The script doesn't call for visible histrionics, except maybe at the very end -- where it segues into high melodrama -- by which time we're already bored with Kill's heavy-handed approach.
De Niro opens his mouth and scratches his cheek; Pacino adjusts a necktie with a hint of that manic energy. Yet these are nothing performances, performances that make strong cases toward these two actors genuinely being past their prime. The fact that Pacino doesn't ham isn't cause for celebration, it's frightening. Both manage to conjure up a couple of minutes of solid acting -- they do well while being interrogated by the police shrink, for example -- but while this might not be among their worst work, it's also among their least memorable.
And this is why Avnet should be scared. He's taken two of the greatest actors in contemporary cinema, actors who have influenced generations, created dozens of magnificently iconic characters, and made the movies come alive with their sheer participation... He's taken this all-star tag-team that film fans have always been wistful about, have always dreamed of with glorious what-if anticipation -- and he's made them forgettable.
Strictly speaking, Righteous Kill isn't an objectionably horrid film. It isn't rank unwatchable, like Avnet's last, 88 Minutes. Yet this one's worse, because it's heartbreaking.