You don't serve two hams at one dinner, but that's exactly what Jon Avnet does in his bad-cop thriller Righteous Kill. Actually, the cured meat in question -- stars Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino -- is about all that makes this outing palatable, but it still doesn't make it right.
The plot is ripped right from a 10-cents-a-word pulp novel. Two veteran New York cops -- Turk (DeNiro) and Rooster (Pacino) -- get bent out of shape when too many criminals go free on technicalities, or don't get caught at all. So, a gun is planted, a killer gets locked up, and the partners score one for justice. Until one of them confesses to an unsolved series of murders, vigilante-style hits on various scumbags that suggest a cop may be the triggerman.
Now, Righteous hops around -- from the contemporary confession to flashbacks of the murders and the ensuing police investigation. Two more cops -- junior hams Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo -- come to the table.
This time-shifting does little to create intrigue, since upfront we get the Who and Why. But isn't that too obvious? Yes, it is. This set-up, and just about every other clue and red herring, in Righteous is too obvious. So, if you don't buy the first confession, it shouldn't take long to guess the real story -- which like all B-grade thrillers is even more illogical than the early misdirection we're asked to swallow.
Clearly, Righteous' big attraction is the pairing of DeNiro and Pacino, two intense, wiry Italian-American actors who each built their reps in the 1970s with gritty portrayals of troubled Noo Yawkers. In 1995, they shared the screen in one memorable scene in Michael Mann's Heat. The singularness of that moment gave it a zingy intensity, as if up until that point these two Great Actors could never be present in the same space together. (For the record, not-yet-legendary actors Wahlberg and Leguizamo also have one previous pairing, in last year's TV mini-series, The Kill Point.)
In Righteous, though, DeNiro and Pacino pal around nonstop, sharing most scenes. ("Like Lennon and McCartney," says one character in the story, a younger guy who perhaps didn't know how that fabled partnership panned out.) It's not only the dumb plot that defuses the drama; both leads turn in light, flippant portrayals. Fun to watch, but not exactly suggestive of a believable psycho-cop.
Truthfully, over the last decade, both actors have tread so much water and chewed so much scenery in duds that it's hard to read their trumpeted partnership in Righteous as anything other than a couple of old half-hearted hacks, goofin' on their dusty mythic status, and laughing all the way to the bank.
- Body language: Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino mull over another victim.