Drama, 101 min
Directed by Jon Avnet
The buddy cop film has been a staple of the American cinema since at least the 1970’s, and it’s been tooled for everything from suspense to comedy to straight action, but rarely has it actually been about friendship. That makes Righteous Kill, the new cop drama teaming Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, a real departure for the genre. Despite the age of the stars and the familiarity of key story elements, Kill has a freshness to it that makes it worth a look.
The publicity surrounding the film has focused chiefly on the casting of De Niro and Pacino, acting icons who are, somewhat shockingly, starring together in a film for only the third time in their long careers. In The Godfather Part II, they played father Vito and son Michael Corleone, but shared no screen time since De Niro appeared only in flashbacks as the young Vito. In 1995’s Heat, a superb crime thriller pitting Pacino’s cop against professional thief De Niro and his crew, the two share the screen for only a few minutes, in a late confrontation scene that had fans panting for fireworks but which, sadly, delivered none. As if to make up for these missed opportunities, Kill almost obsessively keeps the two actors on the screen together for most of its 101 minutes, beginning with a credits sequence that has them side by side on a police firing range and including a late use of split screen to show them testifying separately (but nearly identically) on one of their cases that is under investigation.
This is not merely a gimmick, however, but an integral part of the film’s dual themes of friendship and identity. Partners and friends for almost 30 years, the two detectives, known to co-workers as Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino), have such a close relationship and similar view of their jobs and life on the mean streets they patrol that it is sometimes difficult to know where one begins and the other leaves off (one fellow officer refers to them as “Lennon and McCartney”). Their Old School approach, and their friendship, is tested during the course of the film, however, as they begin the hunt for a serial killer who is targeting criminals that have eluded the law–and may or may not be a fellow cop. Taken by itself, the plot is nothing special, and the notion of vigilante justice emerging from within the ranks of the police is certainly not a new one to the movies. But screenwriter Russell Gewirtz and director Jon Avnet layer the film in intriguing ways by exploring the characters of the two cops, showing both their dark sides and the parts of their lives that keep them sane and functional.
Not least of these is the relationship that began as hero worship by the younger partner (Pacino) for his senior and has grown into a deep and committed friendship based on genuine respect and trust. Rarely has this kind of relationship between men been examined so seriously and convincingly on the screen, without gimmicks or histrionics, just good writing and even better acting. Pacino in particular shines as Rooster, a wise guy whose flippancy masks his weariness but also his concern for Turk, an embittered man on the brink of collapse from the burdens he’s carried around for too many years. Part cop and part mediator between Turk and his demons, Rooster himself struggles with the contradictions of police life–the desire to uphold the law versus the harsh realities of survival in a violent world–and Pacino finds the exact right balance point, delivering a crafty, sleight-of-hand performance that draws on all his instincts as an actor as well as his considerable personal charm. But it is Turk that gives the film its structure and, ultimately, its perspective. Looking more world-weary than ever before, De Niro does an outstanding job of bringing sensitivity to his portrayal of an ugly-tempered, sometimes brutish cop, revealing the vulnerability behind his hardened behavior.
The film deliberately blurs the lines between actors and roles, just as the lines between the two roles themselves are blurred, and the wisdom of casting two old pros in parts that fit them so perfectly is readily apparent. New York City’s crime-ridden landscape is familiar territory for both actors, who between them have probably clocked enough screen hours on the beat to qualify for police pensions (although both have, more famously, spent a greater amount of time on the other side of the law). The echoes of many past characters are easily detected, particularly in the somber tones of De Niro’s narration, which recall Travis Bickle’s monologues in Taxi Driver, or in the Serpico-like idealism of Rooster, which gives Pacino a chance to both channel and update one of his signature roles. These references are welcome, providing touchstones for the viewer, and adding depth and layers of meaning to every look and utterance by the two men.
Avnet’s direction is crisp and fluid, designed to get the maximum out of a pedestrian story and, of course, showcase his stars. To achieve both ends, he takes a fractured approach to the narrative, introducing out-of-sequence moments that could be either flash forwards or flashbacks; the viewer is not quite sure. These slight dislocations in time and place have an unsettling effect, and are disorienting enough to keep us guessing what is what, and even at times who is who. In addition, this mosaic approach to the story-telling has the effect of emphasizing character over plot, which serves the ultimate good, as this movie is about watching De Niro and Pacino bring their cops to life, rather than unraveling a mystery the solution of which is obvious from about the middle of the film on. Avnet’s sure-handedness extends to the depiction of the contemporary noir world in which these characters move–he knows how to get the look and feel of New York City’s crumbling neighborhoods and police precincts, and in a way that never overshadows his actors but only enhances their performances, as if their lined and aging faces are part of the city’s very architecture.
And, in an important way they are, as much symbols of New York as any building one can picture today. De Niro and Pacino are the reason to see this film and the reason it was made. It’s about their careers as much, if not more, than the characters they play. Although this is virtually the first time they’ve acted together, as the two finest actors of their generation, they will always be linked in the public’s mind, perhaps even confused for one another by some. Righteous Kill ingeniously exploits this association, shaping itself around it to lead the viewer on a flawed but rewarding journey into the heart of their conjoined cinematic legacy.