400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.

Okay, so Righteous Kill (381 screens) wasn't the world's greatest movie. At best it was rudimentary -- and at worst, it was outright stupid. But I have to admit, I got a giant-sized kick out of seeing Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together for the first time (aside from not appearing together in The Godfather Part II and appearing together only briefly in Heat). They had a wonderful banter going that suggested they'd been pals for 30 years. However, we had a right to expect more from two guys who are considered among the greatest screen actors of all time.

This label, I think, has only hurt their careers, because now we tend to think of them in terms of hot and cold. Everyone remembers De Niro in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Pacino in The Godfather films and Scarface, but what have they done for us lately? And why on earth did Pacino win an Oscar for Scent of a Woman, of all things? Then we have their most recent films to contend with, De Niro's amiable but lightweight What Just Happened?(36 screens) and Pacino's ultra-lame 88 Minutes. But let me suggest that we ignore the hot-cold concept and concentrate instead on some warmth? After all, both actors have given terrific performances in recent years that deserve some consideration.

Let's start with Pacino. He has made far fewer films than De Niro (he hasn't even reached 50 yet), but has made some very interesting decisions. Everyone loves Scarface, but his other, superb film with De Palma, Carlito's Way (1993), has yet to earn the same kind of love -- at least in this country. And I often find myself defending the great, sad, elegiac Godfather Part III, which is often attacked merely because it's not Godfather I or II. More recently, he was terrific in The Insider (1999) -- though Russell Crowe stole much of his thunder with a showier performance -- also in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia (2002) remake, and as a defiant, spiteful Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (2004). Not to mention his ferocious work for William Friedkin in Cruising (1980), which saw a re-release last year.

De Niro has a longer and spottier record with more guilty pleasures; I'm fond of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000) and The Score (2001) in the face of much disdain. But Stardust (2007) has many fans, including myself. It's hard to forget his moving work in Alfonso Cuaron's colorful, sexy Great Expectations (1998), and Casino (1995) has turned out to be one of Scorsese's most energetic and powerful films (its biggest failing is that it's not GoodFellas). But in the past 20 years, De Niro's best work has to be in Jackie Brown (1997), for which he was virtually unnoticed; his half brain-dead Louis was always just a beat behind the other characters, lost in some distant cloud of fuzz.

The thing about these guys is that, despite their stardom, they tend to disappear into a role, so that even six months later, it's hard to remember that you just saw them in something else. When we see them in something great, it's not surprising; they're the greatest actors in the world. But when we see them in something bad, they're just lazy and all of their recent films have been terrible. It's time to remember the middle ground, check their filmographies and find some perspective.

categories Columns, Cinematical