Whatever you do, don't throw Michael Mann's Heat (or God forbid, The Godfather II) into the DVD player prior to venturing off to your local theater to see Righteous Kill. Part of you might want to watch the film that last featured Robert De Niro and Al Pacino opposite one another to get you in the mood, but you'll surely be disappointed when the popcorn's run out and what you're watching on the big screen doesn't even belong in the same conversation as the film you just watched at home. That's because Righteous Kill is a predictable pile of pass me the paycheck, with both De Niro and Pacino phoning in a combination of past performances -- of men with tough, no-nonsense New York City exteriors and sly, slickly-delivered one-liners. This isn't the De Niro and Pacino of old ... it is, unfortunately, the older De Niro and Pacino.
Since Righteous Kill was written by Russell Gewirtz, there are definitely similarities between this and his last script, Inside Man -- both films are about men who do bad things for the good of the people. Righteous Kill opens with a voice-over from Detective Turk (De Niro) against some grainy, black-and-white video. Turk tells us he's killed 14 people during his years as an NYPD cop ("most people respect the badge ... everyone respects the gun"), but they were all lowlife thugs who deserved it. After some quick-yet-stylish (and somewhat annoying) cuts back and forth through time, we finally arrive at a pretty standard whodunnit with both Turk and his partner Rooster (Pacino) hot on the tail of a serial killer who leaves the equivalent of third-grade poetry with each of his victims. Roses are red, violets are blue ... I guessed all of Act III and so will you. Turk and Rooster spend a majority of the film hopping from one murder scene to the next, taking time in between to bust the balls of a local drug dealer named Spider (Curtis "50 Cent" Johnson) -- a guy they'd love to see either behind bars or dead, and you'd love to see off the screen and away from acting. When he's not dissecting serial killer poetry, Turk enjoys a little rough sex on the side with the department's forensic investigator, Karen (Carla Gugino). As the leads grow colder, Lieutenant Hingis (Brian Dennehy) becomes restless and two younger hot-shots, Perez (John Leguizamo) and Riley (Donnie Wahlberg), begin their own investigation. Of course all of this leads to the sneaky suspicion that the perp may, in fact, be a cop! (Cue music!)
Folks start pointing fingers all over the station. Turk and Rooster sit down with the department shrink, fight with other cops, toss around a few decent monologues for the fans, and then it all wraps up to a fairly predictable ending tacked onto a film you'll most likely forget by tomorrow morning. Don't get me wrong, both De Niro and Pacino raise Righteous Kill to a level that's at least watchable and passably entertaining (Pacino could teach algebra for two hours and I'd still sit there with a smile), but Gewirtz's script felt like it was made up of leftovers -- a strictly generic New York detective story microwaved and topped with two big "names."
Director Jon Avnet, straight off the problem child that was 88 Minutes, gives the film a sort of sleazy, direct-to-DVD sheen, and he fills his movie with the kind of weird, loopy cuts -- some slo-mo, some super-fast -- that simply don't fit ... and certainly don't make the film more enjoyable to look at. Part of the reason Inside Man found success was because it was in the hands of a director who truly understood the city of New York and used her and her people as characters. While Avnet was born in Brooklyn, Righteous Kill gives us very little of the city, aside from an exterior shot here and there. This is a film that needed more than New York's tough accents and attitudes; It needed the city to fall in behind the characters and act as either a crutch, a drug or a demon. You take the city and the people out of a film like Gone, Baby, Gone (which, like Righteous Kill, is another fairly straightforward detective story with a twist) and you're left with nothing but a cast full of names who, previously, have done a whole lot more to earn their paycheck.
But should you see it? In my opinion, no film featuring both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino could ever be a complete waste of time. Both actors know their own strengths and they know why we love them, so expect plenty of familiar facial expressions, expert delivery and dirty language. But with a subpar script and uneven direction, Righteous Kill is easily a film you could wait to catch on DVD in a few months when it's cold and snowing and you know the faces of two old friends will easily heat you up.