The last time Robert de Niro and Al Pacino were on screen at the same time, it was a little movie called Heat, a character driven cops-and-robbers tale directed by Michael Mann. Heat, with its devotion to creating complex characters and relationships, is generally considered one of the greatest crime films of the modern age. Righteous Kill is trying recapture some of that magic, and thanks mostly to the electric Pacino-De Niro tandem, there’s still a bit of heat in here, despite some heavy flaws.
Detectives Fisk and Cowan, nicknamed “Turk” and “Rooster” are veteran detectives and partners in the NYPD. While working on the case of a big time drug dealer, they get called in to investigate the murder of a notorious pimp. When they get wind of other murders with the same modus operandi, they soon realize that they’re dealing with a serial killer who targets criminals. Following the clues, they come to the conclusion that the serial killer is likely a cop, which casts suspicion on the hotheaded Turk. The partners need to work quickly to clear Turk’s name, and find the man responsible for these vigilante killings.
The script is a little messy. The characters are pretty strong, and the dialogue is quick and compelling, but the way it builds up the mystery is a little shoddy. Obviously it’s difficult to talk about what goes wrong without giving too much away, but I will say that the script pushes pretty hard in one direction, telegraphing the twist pretty early in the film. You start to smell the red herring right away, and the average moviegoer will probably figure it out by the end of the first act. But like with most things, it’s not really about the destination. It’s about the journey, and the world they show us can be pretty fun to watch.
The film just feels a little gimmicky at times, pushing hard to juxtapose things that could’ve probably just been played straight. The way this film conceals information is a little inelegant, and it doesn’t involve the audience as well as it could. Mostly, though, the film is shot well enough, and the quickfire editing keeps things moving pretty well. There are a couple of jarring cuts here and there, but Avnet seems able to hold it together. He clearly recognizes that all his focus needed to be on the performances of his two lead stars.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the main event here is just seeing these two gigantic actors slugging it out on screen. Their talent is palpable, filling the screen with enough presence that it starts you make you feel a bit stifled. De Niro and Pacino have flawless delivery, and it’s pretty difficult to find fault in their choices. But the undercard is pretty good, too. Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are formidable actors in their own right, and their performances are fun to watch. Brian Dennehy and Carla Gugino add a good deal of color to the mix. Rapper 50 Cent is the weakest link in this cast, but even he can’t ruin a scene with Pacino and De Niro.
Righteous Kill isn’t Heat, but it’s pretty fun in its own right. The script could’ve used an ounce of tightening, and the filmmaking could’ve been toned down. It’s hit-and-miss when you really start to break things down. But once Pacino and De Niro enter the picture, they just elevate everything in the film. Their characters glow with personality, and watching these two great actors spar is an effortless experience. Righteous Kill is certainly far from perfect, but these performances could be strong enough to warrant a watch.