One of my favorite Robert De Niro-with-a-badge movie moments comes courtesy of the 1997 crime drama Cop Land. A pudgy Sylvester Stallone interrupts a moustach’ed De Niro during his lunch break in his NYPD office wanting to help expose a unit of crooked cops despite previous hesitation. In a most hardhearted way, De Niro stands up and shouts three simple words to let Stallone know his opportunity was squandered: “You blew it!”
That’s the exact same message someone needs to convey to Righteous Kill director Jon Avnet (88 Minutes) and screenwriter Russell Gewirtz (Inside Man). With Robert De Niro and Al Pacino at their disposal (their first film together since sharing the screen for a few brief minutes in 1995’s Heat), you could presume that Avnet and Gewirtz got distracted by the 14 Academy Award nominations and three wins between their two stars, or how 100 years from now, history honor them as the preeminent actors of their generation, but that would be letting the filmmakers off too easy. They simply choked.
In Righteous Kill, old-timer NYPD detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) are trailing a serial killer who targets criminals who have slipped through the judicial system. From physically abusive pimps to predatory Catholic priests, no one with a shady past is safe from the killer’s wrath.
But when the murders start linking back to Turk, officers from another precinct (Leguizamo and Wahlberg) begin thinking that the 30-year force veteran might actually be responsible for the point-blank murders. While Pacino plays the role of the seemingly more professional officer, De Niro’s a short-tempered “pitbull on cocaine” who spends his free time coaching little-league softball with an iron fist and participating in the S&M fantasies of a lovely forensics investigator (Gugino).
The strong bond between Turk and Rooster is evident, which makes Kill bearable enough when De Niro and Pacino aren’t trying to sound like cops. We’ve seen them in these roles before, of course, and here they are merely going through the motions, providing what is expected from them. Plus, the mystery behind the murders is so obvious and carelessly written, it almost seems to be a joke. Imagine hearing a gun shot, walking into a room, and seeing two guys standing over a dead body. One guy has a smoking gun in his hand and is covered in the victim’s blood. Then, the other guy admits to the murder. That is literally the depth of Gewirtz’s script.
The bottom line is that Righteous Kill’s viewers will have high expectations riding solely on the much-anticipated reunion of De Niro and Pacino. But with a paper-thin whodunnit storyline and underdeveloped characters, their second real cinematic encounter (not counting Godfather II) becomes more of a second thought. While the bullets hit their marks, not much else makes a memorable statement, and we’re left longing for the days when Frank Serpicio and Jake La Motta ruled the big screen.