Righteous Kill

September, 2008, Mystery

Directed by:Jon Avnet

Starring:Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, 50 Cent, Carla Gugino, Donnie Wahlberg, Brian Dennehy, and John Leguizamo

There are times when the opening credits of a film tell you precisely what you’re about to experience - - and in the case of this labored crime drama from long-time T.V. director John Avnet which stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, that judgment can be made before the first word of dialogue gets spoken. As these two film icons repeatedly shred paper targets at a firing range while a rap tune thunders on the soundtrack, you know what follows won’t exactly be an exercise in subtlety.  

At 65 and 68 respectively, Messrs De Niro and Pacino are hardly past their sell-by dates, but of late both of them have selected material which reflects poorly on the overall quality of their careers. In Pacino’s case, that’s meant adopting a world-weary cynicism punctuated by exaggerated facial expressions and a singsong voice which suggests he’s become increasingly smug about pleasing his audience. De Niro, on the other hand, has begun to wear a perpetual grimace suggesting that the inner tension he’s displayed so perfectly in earlier roles has permanently re-arranged his facial features to reflect nothing more nuanced than perpetual dyspepsia.

In Righteous, these memorable screen actors play Turk and Rooster, long-time detective partners in the New York police department, assigned to investigate the grisly serial murders of some of the city’s most despicable citizens whose crimes have gone unpunished. The vigilante responsible seems to possess considerable detailed information about his victims and apparently has unusually easy access to them; could the avenging angel carry a badge? 

As the veteran cops pursue leads which allow them to connect multiple homicides to a single perpetrator, De Niro’s Turk pursues a sadomasochistic romance with Karen Corelli, (Carla Gugino) one of the department’s crime scene investigators while Pacino’s Rooster plays a cat and mouse game with another pair of detectives who have come to suspect that Turk may be the killer.

As the cast plods through the all-too-predictable elements of this storyline, screenwriter Russell Gewirtz, (responsible for authoring Spike Lee’s slickly fascinating bank heist Inside Man) burdens the cast with a whole host of the worst clichés in the genre; there’s a phony, mechanical ring to nearly every line of dialogue, made even more dreary by the realization that the principals are capable of delivering so much more. If this movie proves anything, it’s that even superior actors can’t take a script that plays like a sow’s ear and turn it into the movie equivalent of a  silk purse.

An air of sordid desperation permeates everything in Righteous Kill, from the implausible May/December sexual games played by De Niro & Gugino, (whose brief starring role in the ill-fated Karen Sisco series first brought this talented actress to public attention) to the film’s casual but implicit racist treatment of its black gangster villains. Slipshod in its cinematography and sloppy in its pacing, Righteous has the look and feel of something patched together to meet contract obligations on the part of its principals. 

The verdict? A cast of talented actors wasted on a dull script, unimaginatively realized by a director whose talents in the future may best be focused on the small screen.  

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