Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
A poorly conceived plot wastes two strong performances by DeNiro and Pacino.
In Jon Avnet’s Righteous Kill, veteran NYPD detectives David Fisk (Al Pacino) and Thomas Cowan (Robert DeNiro) find themselves involved in a serial killer case that might trace back to a cop. We know that these guys are up to the task even though they are both in their sixties and probably should have retired a long time ago. Even though they have been on the force for over thirty years they can still shoot straight and pump iron. The film knows that we don’t see Pacino and DeNiro as over the hill and so it can get away with things that a film with different actors may not be able to get away with.
The serial killer that they are on the hunt for seems to be killing off only “bad” guys. This makes Fisk and Cowan less than fully motivated when it comes to finding who the killer is. The problem is that all of the victims have a connection to Cowan and soon enough he becomes a suspect. This isn’t surprising especially since he can be a real hothead, with Fisk usually having to cool him down in a way that only he can. There are two younger detectives on the case as well, Simon Perez (John Leguizamo) and Ted Riley (Donnie Wahlberg) and it’s Perez who sees little doubt that Cowan is the guy doing the killings.
From the beginning of Righteous Kill and interspersed throughout the film we see video footage of Cowan “confessing” to the murders. After so many years on the force the job finally got to him and he had to do what the justice system could not. Therefore the film is either using him as a red herring or is simply documenting the psychological breakdown of a good cop. Our bets are on the former because while the film does delve into the pressures of being a homicide detective for so many years it’s obvious that it has something up its sleeve as it truly wants to be a murder mystery of sorts. The problem is that what lies up that sleeve is so obvious that we can see it coming from about the ten minute mark. The film follows that unwritten rule that when the bad guy is so obviously not the bad guy the real bad guy has to be the next most obvious choice.
I’m guessing that from the few paragraphs I’ve written you’ve already figured out the “twist.” Normally I would just say that the film is poorly conceived and that two good performances are wasted, but that’s not so easy this time. The filmmakers understand that they have two of the greatest actors of all time in their film and that alone could be enough to make it work and they are almost right. Watching Pacino and DeNiro play off each other is like watching a pitcher and a catcher who have been working together their entire careers. Yes I know that this is the first time the two are teamed up together even though they played adversaries in Michael Mann’s brilliant Heat but you would swear that they’ve been a team forever. You certainly never doubt that these guys have been partners on the force for thirty years. Director Jon Avnet and writer Russell Gewirtz understand their respective personas and they play then for all they’re worth.
DeNiro brings his signature intensity to the role of Thomas Cowan, a tough and sometimes violent cop who has seen way too much bad stuff in his life. His younger girlfriend (Carla Gugino) is also a cop and that makes sense. Pacino’s Fisk while also being numbed to stuff that would make the rest of us puke, is the more reserved of the two but hardly any less intense when push comes to shove. The film gives each of these guys their solo moments but it’s when they are in the same shot that we see what real acting “chemistry” is all about. Their scenes have such an effortless feel that they almost seem unscripted.
However Righteous Kill does indeed have a script and it’s not a good one. Watching DeNiro and Pacino at work may very well take our minds off of how thin the film really is, but ultimately as with all movies, it’s the writing that makes or breaks it. When the “twist” is finally revealed it can’t be described as anything less than predictable and absurd. Righteous Kill doesn’t necessarily waste two great actors but it certainly uses them as an excuse to deliver what otherwise is a pretty bad movie.