Screen legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino team up with director Jon
Avnet in Righteous Kill, a thinly sketched, utterly pedestrian cop
thriller that pivots on a very predictable twist ending. An unworthy
vehicle for its stars’ talents, the movie plays like an episodic small
screen crime serial lazily blown up for the big screen.
The film opens with black-and-white footage of a confession to 14 slayings, and then winds its way back an indeterminate amount of time, introducing Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino), two veteran New York City cops. The long-time partners share some sympathies with a vigilante killer, The Poetry Boy, who’s offing pimps, murderers and other thugs who otherwise beat the legal system, and leaving calling cards of rhymed composition at the crime scenes. Turk and Rooster start investigating drug dealer Marcus “Spider” Smith (rapper 50 Cent, né Curtis Jackson), but get pulled into the serial killer case.
A hard-edged forensic specialist, Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino), helps out with some crime scene analysis; complicating factors is her relationship with Turk. Two junior detectives, Perez and Riley (John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg), are also brought in to work with the wily veterans. They quickly come to suspect that the killer is a cop — maybe even Turk, who seems eager to knock down any theories that the Poetry Boy has a badge.
Watching Righteous Kill, one feels as if they’ve tripped back in time and landed smack dab in the middle of some anonymous, straight-to-video thriller from the 1980s. There’s no pop to the pacing, no intrigue or slickness applied to the homicidal stagings, which are flatly captured in stand-alone form. In short, there’s no excitement here, or legitimate tension. Instead, Avnet and cinematographer Denis Lenoir try to manufacture forward-leaning energy by occasionally deploying a couple different stylistic gimmicks, from split-screen psychiatric interviews and point-of-view hand-held camerawork to flash-forward bits from the aforementioned confession video. This lack of a codifying visual scheme only underscores the narrative’s weakness.
The film’s indistinct screenplay, by Russell Gewirtz (Inside Man), offers up righteously thin lead characterizations, which on a certain level makes its eventual reversals play more smoothly, yet without any real consequence. The personal relationship between Turk and Karen, who’s into rough sexual roleplay, is especially baffling in its cursoriness, and the junior detectives — integral to driving the investigatory plot, and thus Turk’s increasing agitation — aren’t given enough front-and-center time.
A few incongruous moments of pop cultural humor pop up (one of the victims’ surnames is Brady, spawning a joke about Brady Bunch), but there’s never a sense that these jokes flow from character, that they’re anything more than a couple tossed-off bits of generic “color.” The script is perhaps best defined as being beset by missed opportunities and unexploited pay-offs; the latter is most egregiously true in a violent sequence that feeds the finale and yet is crucially not referenced by characters, rendering it inconsequential and false.
Older but tanner and slimmer than his counterpart, Pacino plays things more subdued than in many of his recent films. De Niro, meanwhile, trades in moderately restrained variations of moves we’ve seen in some of his previous hothead characters. Even if familiar, there is certainly a residual trace affection from seeing the two exercise their craft in the same frame, but Righteous Kill slowly drains that thrill. For the original review, from Screen International, click here. (Overture, R, 100 minutes)