Pacino. DeNiro. Armed and dangerous. In a cop drama. In NYC. Together. Written by the writer of Inside Man. Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, the fact that it doesn't live up to expectations is not unexpected. Those are some lofty expectations. Both Don Corleones in the same movie? Scarface and Travis Bickle mixing it up as New York's finest? Any movie with those ingredients should be arrested for being too damn cool; for having more quotable lines than Goodfellas or Heat. But the trouble with Righteous Kill isn't just that it's mediocre. It's flat out bad. As in awful. Lame. Boring. What could've gone so wrong?
First, and foremost, this movie is somehow NOT directed by Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, or Spike Lee. DeNiro initiated the project but I cannot imagine that the director of Fried Green Tomatoes and TV's The Starter Wife was at the top of his list. Jon Avnet is not a bad director in the way a Brett Ratner or Michael Bay might be, but in some ways he's worse, making films that are extraordinarily mundane and by the numbers. He seems to be a filmmaker comfortable with playing for a draw rather than risking losing to win. This one decision fuels the fire for everything else that helps burn the project down. Choosing a director like Avnet means that you have a filmmaker comfortable with making a routine film. For directors like Scorsese, Lee, or DePalma, a film might turn out awful in an absurd way but never is a routine one. They would demand greatness all around them and attempt to make something memorable by pushing everyone's boundaries.
The other main problem is the script. I know I listed that as a pro rather than a con above, but that was about expectations and Russell Gewirtz wrote a pretty good script for Inside Man that he appears to have ripped off here. Once again, we get a character who seems to be a vicious criminal telling us the story of his crimes until the "big twist" ending when we learn the real context behind the story. The twist in Inside Man was clever enough but Gewirtz's attempt here to play with the unreliable narrator is so nakedly predictable that a child raised by wolves and having never seen a film before would be able to guess at it. Along with the lame plotting, we get some of the most unmemorable dialogue since Chaplin. These are two actors noted for their delivery of lines. Pop culture is full of their famous quotes. But here we get third grade David Mamet with lines like, "Everyone respects the gun." Really? A Scorsese, Lee, or DePalma would've known to actually call Mamet himself in to do a polish on the script over the weekend. Why pay these actors their fees and give them trite, forgettable dialogue to speak?
The film has a ramshackle story that it both respects too much and not at all. It's about detectives "Turk"(DeNiro) and "Rooster"(Pacino), long time partners on the NYPD who become involved in the investigation of a series of vigilante "serial" murders of 14 "lowlifes" who just may have deserved it. The crimes are linked by the killer's Seussical bent on writing bad poems and leaving them at the scene like your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. There's some backstory about how "Turk" once planted a gun to put away a vicious child killer who was about to walk off scot-free. That crossing of the line haunts them throughout as a pair of younger detectives Perez (John Leguizamo) and Reilly (Donnie Whalberg) seem to think that "Turk" may be the killer. "Turk" certainly has a violent streak and expresses it during some rough sex with curious CSI detective Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino), who would like the sex to be a lot rougher.
At this point the story seems to be "cruising" along the path of William Friedkin or Paul Verhoeven in his two collaborations with sleazy writer Joe Eszterhas and maybe that would've made for a much better film. Avnet does not possess enough style as a filmmaker to make the movie about anything but the plot. Verhoeven or DePalma would've winked at the story and then plunged the movie into areas of fun and games to make sure the audience didn't realize what a load of BS they were watching. In Avnet's version we have nothing else to hang on to besides the thin plot and bland dialogue. If Avnet wanted to make a genuine film about these veteran detectives nearing retirement, he needed to drop the hesitant thriller plot that forces the characters to act in duplicitous ways in order to set up the shocking twist. Stunned by boredom, we can do nothing else but to laugh at the flowing hair of Al Pacino and the frozen frown of Robert DeNiro.
Righteous Kill arrives on DVD via the good folks at Anchor Bay, responsible for the very respectful releases of many a great cult horror and science fiction film. The single disc Standard Definition DVD is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen and in Dolby Surround 5.1. Spanish subtitles are available. The movie's image is nice enough, though the cinematography is flat and evenly lit like a cheap television show. It's currently in vogue to shoot movies in low contrast in order to have maximum latitude for color grading during the digital intermediate process, but this basically looks like the movie that wasn't color graded at all.
There's two brief featurettes included, one of which, "The Investigation" is nothing more than the usual behind-the-scenes round robin of the main cast and crew all talking about how awesome it was to be breathing the same air as these two legends. DeNiro allows himself to be interviewed and demonstrates just how boring he's reputed to be when out of character. Screenwriter Gewirtz reveals his only trick by telling us that he tries to come up with the craziest twist possible first and then writes the script to lead up to that moment. Just as that other practical joker, M. Night Shyamalan, this technique insures that everything leading up to the twist will be badly written as it's all in the service of some confidence trick designed to fool the audience. If the twist isn't on the level of The Usual Suspects then the whole film has wasted it's time and ours by just treading water. The twist in Righteous Kill is worth someone spoiling in order for you to save a few precious hours of your life. Ask a friend who's seen it to tell you the ending so you can watch something else.
The second featurette, "The Thin Blue Line" is not the Errol Morris classic, but rather a decent short documentary on the NYPD and the temptations of corruption. While nothing special, it's still the most interesting thing on the DVD. Any one of the stories told by former NYPD officers would make a better film than the one in Righteous Kill.
An audio commentary by director Avnet offers very little insights into working with these two great actors or about the process of making the film. The most interesting tidbit is that the script that everyone seems to have loved underwent reams of uncredited rewrites by scribes like Paul Brickman (Risky Business) and that the entire ending was changed since Avnet and the stars couldn't figure out what the script was really about. Not knowing what your story is about should be a good sign that something is wrong with your story.
The last extra on the DVD is the theatrical trailer which uses the Rolling Stones to fool audiences into believing that this mess was the work of Stones obsessed Martin Scorsese. You will not be fooled.