In the 13 years since Michael Mann’s masterly Heat, neither Robert De Niro or Al Pacino have stretched themselves much; only so far, it seems, to grab paycheques for the likes of Meet The Fockers or Ocean’s Thirteen. But give credit – these two old lions still have teeth. In fact, their presence is what near-heroically rescues Righteous Kill from the straight-to-DVD shelf.
This time, they’re on the same side of the law, as veteran New York detectives who can’t hang up their badges until they solve their latest case: a series of brutal murders that look to be the work of a vigilante targeting criminals who got off on legal technicalities. When evidence to one of the cops’ own balancing the scales of justice, their investigation goes to some uncomfortable places.
Screw the synopsis; how’s the acting? Pleasingly understated. This is no scenery-devouring ham-off, Bob and Al bringing it down a notch to stay a whisper above gravelly for most of their dialogue. True, some of their unwieldy patter – like the ongoing references to The Brady Bunch – would roll better off the tongues of Stiller and Wilson. But our grizzled duo consistently make the best of it. There are even flickers of greatness; juicy chunks of character business (being interrogated by internal affairs, or on the shrink’s couch after a gunfight) that flash you right back to the nuance and vibrancy of their classic ’70s performances.
No, the main problems lie behind the camera. The script, by Inside Man scribe Russell Gewirtz, barely gets a toehold on the ethics of vigilantism; any ‘debate’ is mostly confined to repetition of the title. Meanwhile, even M Night Shyamalan will scoff at the hokey hairpin twists that set up the finale. The direction’s even less ambitious. Jon Avnet (whose middling CV includes Red Corner, Up Close And Personal and this month’s Pacino dud 88 Minutes) manages the unbelievable, making his authentic New York-area locales look like freshly scrubbed Vancouver. As producer, he should’ve allied his money to sense and hired a helmer to match his actors’ chops – someone who could’ve padded a slim story with atmos and flair.
The support’s hit and miss. Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo provide gritty ballast as dishevelled detectives who know there’s more than to the case than the protagonists are willing to admit. Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson passes muster as an entrepreneurial drug dealer, but poor Carla Gugino is saddled with an oversexed caricature of a character – an S&M-digging crime-scene ‘tec - who belongs in Sin City. The bit where Al turns her on by describing a police beating is silliness worthy of the Zucker brothers.
Righteous Kill isn’t a bad film, just… safe. Pacino and De Niro can still bring the heat, but this seen-it-before thriller is more fuzzy blanket than raging fire.