The best performance in RIGHTEOUS KILL is not given by either of its storied leads, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. It’s not given by the solid supporting cast of Donnie Wahlberg, John Leguizamo, Carla Gugino, and Brian Dennehey, who all add a raffish interest while still seeming to pull their punches in an attempt to not show up the leads. No, the single best performance in this dull thriller is given by Melissa Leo. In less than three minutes of screen time, she delivers a performance with more complexity, pathos, sheer guts and naked truth than everyone else in the cast put together. If Beatrice Straight and Judy Dench could win an Oscars™ for a comparable amount of screen time in NETWORK and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE respectively, and for work that while impressive was not this good, I see no reason not to remember Miss Leo come awards season. Her astonishing star turn in FROZEN RIVER, however, should also be remembered.
But I digress and it’s time to return to a less pleasant topic, as in RIGHTEOUS KILL. This lugubrious and lackadaisical film has De Niro and Pacino playing New York cops, nicknamed Turk and Rooster, 30 years on the job and partners for most of them. They are coming to the end of their careers and also to the end of their patience with the system. A child killer who walks is the breaking point for Turk, who then, with approval from Rooster, frames the perp for another crime he didn’t commit, but one that will send him away for life. And that would have been that except for a string of murders, the victims of which all were very bad men, all of whom had a poem left at the scene of the crime, and all of whom had crossed paths with Turk and Rooster at one point or another.
The script starts out by giving away that one of our boys is the serial killer. It also has them catching the case to the chagrin of two cops (Wahlberg and Leguizamo) from another precinct who were called in on one of the murders. It doesn’t take long for the foursome to figure out that it’s a cop doing the killing, and it doesn’t take long for the film itself to run out of steam, even with Gugino steaming things up as a hard-as-nails, semi-kinky Crime Scene Unit cutie who has a thing going with Turk. Wisely, considering De Niro’s bulk, that thing is kept mostly offscreen. The cops scrap and banter in that profane, trash-talking way that is at the heart of male bonding and bickering. They shoot off their mouths and shoot off their guns while the plot line lurches along with little enough to justify its running time. Implausibility takes a bow with such things as a drug kinpin, played by 50 Cent, making small-time sales to a yuppie. The clunky staging designed to keep the audience in suspense about what it really going on only serves to give it away all too soon with its awkwardness. When events finally eddy into an overlong, talky, and resolutely dull climax that has all the electricity of a dead battery, it is a denouement greeted with a sigh of relief that it is all finally coming to an end. Just not soon enough.
There is a whiff of wistful desperation here. Just the barest whiff to be sure, but there nonetheless, as in the hope of recapturing the glory days of 1995’s HEAT, the first time that De Niro and Pacino appeared on screen together, as opposed to merely co-starring in the same film. Certainly in RIGHTEOUS KILL they are on better behavior than in many of their recent flicks in which they were often sleepwalking, using the tricks of the trade to propel them along without anything resembling an emotional commitment. De Niro still grimaces, even when he smiles, but is game enough to do leg lifts as the camera rolls and even to jog along in a chase sequence. Pacino bobs and weaves, but with less frequency than of late, and the pie-eyed gobsmacked expression has a more world weary cast. When he summons up tears at one point, there is a flash of the old Pacino at the top of his game. If only everyone had stopped while they were ahead, it would have been better for everyone.