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Sunday, January 4, 2009

RIGHTEOUS KILL -- DVD review by porfle

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino--a pairing of dynamic acting talents that still gets one's attention the way it did back in '95 when Michael Mann first brought them together as the opposing leads in his bullet-riddled crime drama HEAT (although they only actually shared two scenes together). Perhaps the team-up of Bob and Al doesn't quite generate the same kind of heat in 2008 as it did then, but it's still a good deal of fun to see them on the screen together in Jon Avnet's cop drama RIGHTEOUS KILL, a vehicle that's almost but not quite worthy of them.

Veteran homicide detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) are old-school NYPD cops with a hands-on approach to handling bad guys. Turk in particular seems to have an anger management problem, and when certain vile criminals who have escaped justice due to legal technicalities start getting executed left and right, suspicion begins to fall upon him.

The fact that the film opens with Turk giving a videotaped confession would seem to render things a bit too cut-and-dried, and indeed we begin to consider other possibilities. Could he be taking the rap for his partner? Or perhaps even his forensic-specialist girlfriend, Karen (Carla Gugino)? The two younger cops who are working the case with them, Perez (John Leguizamo) and Riley (Donnie Wahlberg), seem exceedingly anxious to pin the murders on Turk. Might one of them be the killer?

One of the most interesting things about Russell Gewirtz' screenplay is the exploration of how much a cop may be capable of taking the law into his own hands when he has the power to do so. What if you know for certain that someone's guilty of a heinous crime, but he gets off? Is it right to frame him for something he didn't do, so that he'll get his deserved punishment? The moral dilemma is intensified when the vigilante action escalates from planting evidence to outright execution--the "righteous kill." And although Turk and Rooster both seem equally hard-nosed and ruthless, the difference between how far each is willing to go to exact justice may lead to ruin for one or both of them.

The casting of the two leads is great, but not the major event it might have been. Our overfamiliarity with Robert De Niro, especially as a comic figure in films such as MEET THE PARENTS, seems to have diluted the "actor" mystique he had back in the TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL days. Likewise with Pacino, no longer the riveting young talent from THE GODFATHER or SCARFACE, now the "hoo-ahh" guy with the big hair and the peacock strut who sometimes seems content to hang back and let his considerable presence carry a role. Which is enough, really, because each of these guys carries sufficient weight to make any film better, and who can resist seeing them playing off of each other?

They do seem to be on auto-pilot at times--De Niro's not really feelin' some of that less-than-thrilling dialogue, while Pacino often just seems to be having fun--but when they're on, as they are in several key scenes, we get some of that dangerous intensity that has always made them exciting. Especially De Niro, whose character starts to get a little scary later on because we really don't know what he'll do next. With Pacino, it eventually becomes apparent that his character's jovial fascade hides something more ominous than is first apparent, and he brings his old skills to bear when it counts.

Carla Gugino, who played Marv's gorgeous parole officer in SIN CITY, is well cast and makes the most of some juicy scenes with the two leads. Leguizamo and Wahlberg do good work here, as does the reliable Brian Dennehy as Lieutenant Hingis, who grudgingly begins to suspect that Turk is the killer. As the cocky criminal Spider, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson proves that he's as adept at pretending to be a gangsta onscreen as he is onstage. And in a smaller role, Melissa Leo of TV's "Homicide: Life on the Street" is very good as the distraught mother of a murdered child.

Jon Avnet's direction is workmanlike and unflashy, the look of the film hovering somewhere between top-grade gloss and assembly-line competence. Although there is quite a bit of violence and tension along the way, what's missing is a hard-edged, gritty realism that would've pushed this film to a higher level. Even so, the action and suspense keep things moving while the performances are often impressive. And although I actually saw the twist ending coming from a few blocks away, the final revelation and emotional ending (which has faint echoes of that last scene in HEAT) are rewarding.

The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image and Dolby Surround 5.1 sound are both good. Director Avnet provides an informative scene-specific commentary. Extras include two featurettes, "The Investigation: An In-Depth Look at 'Righteous Kill'" and "The Thin Blue Line: An Exploration of Cops & Criminals", the latter being of special interest as it exposes some of the real-life incidents that inspired the screenplay, with comments from actual cops. Subtitles are in English SDH and Spanish.

While this isn't quite the world-shaking pairing of De Niro and Pacino that some of us always wished for, RIGHTEOUS KILL is still a solid, exciting story for them to bluster around in. And there are definitely a lot of things in this world that are less fun than watching these two legendary tough guys playing out-of-control New York homicide cops with itchy trigger fingers. If that sounds like fun to you, then by all means check it out.

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