In the opening of the lurid crime puzzler "Righteous Kill," Robert De Niro’s Turk is seen on a security video, telling us he’s been a cop for 30 years, and he has killed 14 people. The bulk of the movie is told in flashback scenes leading up to that video—so obviously there’s more than meets the electronic eye here.
Is Turk the Dirty Harry of New York City? Is he a cop who has gone over the proverbial edge? Or is it more complicated than that?
You’ll be able to hold back from biting at a few curveballs thrown by screenwriter Russell Gerwitz ("Inside Man") and director Jon Avnet ("Fried Green Tomatoes") until halfway through the film, when the plot delivers a big fat fastball that should enable you to figure out what’s going on.
But that shouldn’t spoil the ride, because "Righteous Kill" is mostly about watching De Niro and Al Pacino share serious screen time for the first time in their All-Star careers. (And to keep the baseball theme going here, just wait until you hear Turk explain his love for the Infield Fly rule.)
De Niro, looking so beefy and weathered he’d no longer need a weight-gain program or makeup to play the latter-stages Jake La Motta, is the Turk. Pacino, wearing the de rigueur Pacino all-black ensemble and sporting another distracting hairdo that makes him look like the oldest surviving member of Loverboy, is Turk’s partner Rooster. They walk alike, they talk alike, at times they even shoot alike. Turk’s a widower who’s involved with a kinky forensic cop named Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino), and as for Rooster, we don’t know a damn thing about his personal life—but their partnership is obviously the defining relationship in their lives.
There’s a serial killer out there, offing one depraved scuzzball after another and leaving handwritten poems at the crime scenes. All signs point to the killer being a cop or a former cop, and "Righteous Kill" serves up multiple suspects, from Turk and Rooster and even Karen, to a hotshot loudmouth played by John Leguizamo. (I’d throw in the Jabba-sized Brian Dennehy as well, but he’s too busy playing the obligatory boss behind the desk who has to threaten to take away Turk’s badge to do any killing.)
Between all the old-guy jokes about AARP and shuffleboard and the brief spurts of blood as another depraved sicko bites the pavement, Turk and/or Rooster mix it up with a coke-loving lawyer, well-played by Trilby Glover; a grieving mom played by Melissa Leo in a devastating three-minute cameo; and a drug lord played by Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, whose performance is so lifeless he might as well be playing one of the corpses. Avnet keeps things humming along and directs with efficient style; Gerwitz gives us a screenplay that’s darkly funny and sufficiently gritty (albeit brimming with a few too many clichés).
The TV spots for "Righteous Kill" play up the titles that have earned De Niro and Pacino their own wings in the Tough Guy Movie Hall of Fame. But their careers have intersected only briefly. They were both in "The Godfather, Part II," of course, but never onscreen together. And in Michael Mann’s seminal thriller "Heat" (1995), there was just the one famous scene in the diner, and the final confrontation under the roaring jets at LAX.
In "Righteous Kill," they’re partners in crime and partners on the screen. Twenty-five years ago, this would have been the cinematic pairing of the year. Now, with Pacino at 68 and De Niro at 65, when Pacino’s recent work includes "88 Minutes," "Ocean’s 13" and "Gigli," and De Niro’s biggest commercial success has come through the "Analyze This" and "Meet the Parents" franchises, it doesn’t have quite the same pop.
But I’ll take it. Taken purely on its merits as a psychological thriller, "Righteous Kill" is probably a two-star film. The third star is there strictly for De Niro and Pacino. Playing off each other, they stir up the ghosts of past greatness.