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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Righteous Kill

Is Righteous Kill a roller coaster thrill or one sour pill? I suppose it depends on your expectations from the get-go. For those walking in expecting The Godfather redux considering Righteous Kill stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, both of whose careers gained great credibility from their contributions to the legendary series, this is probably going to be a buzz-kill. You’ve got to remember that Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather (I & II) and Francis Ford Coppola directed both. Here you’ve got a relatively untested writer in Russell Gewirtz, as this is only his second produced film (the first was 2006’s Inside Man), and Righteous Kill is directed by Jon Avnet, whose film work is modest (88 minutes) at best. He is far better known for his television work (“Boomtown,” “The Starter Wife”), which doesn’t demand the skill or expectations of a big screen production.

This isn’t meant as an excuse for Righteous Kill. If I wanted to do that I’d remind you that De Niro made the personal decision to play “Fearless Leader” in a live action version of The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle and that Pacino picked both Gigli AND Dick Tracy to add to his résumé. In other words, if a movie crosses the heavens and it stars the leads of The Godfather I & II, there is no guarantee it will be brilliant.

Now I’m not saying Righteous Kill is a stinker; it’s just not The Departed when it comes to the ensemble work of a group of manly men playing cops investigating one another. The trouble isn’t necessarily with Turk (De Niro) or Rooster (Pacino). As a matter of fact, their acting is top notch here, and they run rings around their supporting cast. John Leguizamo (The Happening) plays Det. Simon Perez, supposedly generating all sorts of Latino passion about his theory that the local serial killer being investigated by senior detectives Turk and Rooster might be one of their own, an NYPD cop. The truth is Leguizumo showed more excitement over which lipstick to where back in the day when he played a drag princess in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Instead, he and his partner, Det. Ted Riley (Donnie Wahlberg; Saw IV) just seem tired all time, like they’ve been out all night bagging middle-aged groupies they picked up after a New Kids on the Block concert. Surely Wahlberg at least knows the only way they will ever solve this case is by Hangin' Tough, taking things Step by Step and then being willing to Face the Music if their theory proves wrong. By the way, as an ironic aside, it’s just painfully sad that I know those are NKOTB album titles. Please, kill me now.

The whole movie is actually a non-mystery thriller as the very first scene opens with a roomful of police officers watching a video of Turk confessing to the serial killings of fourteen people in the city and describing the whens, wheres, and hows of his crimes. Then the film jumps back three months and the unexpected twist of the film begins ~ what sent this “good cop” of more than twenty years down the wrong path and how did he get away with it without his loyal partner, Rooster, figuring out what was going on. Complicating things too, is the fact that Turk has a girlfriend on the force, detective Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino; American Gangster), who is assigned to the very serial murders case we already know Turk will confess to in the future. Granted, she’s into kinky and rough sex, but unless Turk has pistol-whipped the brains right out of her, she has to be even more clueless than Sarah Palin when asked to define “The Bush Doctrine.”

The whole film is shot in very dark tones to reflect the grim atmosphere of the movie, which makes the whole thing a bit much without some light moments of comic relief. For me, the only comedy came in seeing veteran actor Brian Dennehy (Welcome to Paradise) huff and puff and growl his way through the halls of the department as Lieutenant Hingis. He doesn’t add a thing to the plot, but I’m always surprised to see Dennehy is still alive for some reason. Granted, he’s only 70 years old, but he has a face that looks like it was run over by a Jack Daniel’s delivery truck, if you get my drift. What I really get a giggle out of though is taking a gander at Dennehy’s gi-normous chompers. I swear every single one is bigger than a mahjong tile and when he talks they look like those wind-up teeth you buy in a joke shop, the ones that chatter on and on while bouncing around your desk. It’s good to have Brian Dennehy’s dentures show up in a gloom-fest like this, if only for a couple of minutes. If nothing else, he’s like a PSA to remind everyone to call their dentist’s office and set up an appointment to get their teeth cleaned.

I wish I could say Curtis Jackson aka 50 Cent (Home of the Brave) had at least as much to offer to the movie, but he actually seems to be getting worse as an actor the more he is given the opportunity to do so. I thought he was quite good in his debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin', but here he just mumbles his lines as a Harlem club owner and proves he deserves to be paid about what his stage name implies, 50¢.

Righteous Kill is not what it portends to be, but it is a great opportunity to see two American icons play off of one another as if they really have been partners and pals for more than two decades. The comfortable banter between the two is a terrific showcase for students of acting and the movie itself shows how two greats can carry a movie entirely on their own. As for the plot? It has its twists and turns, to be sure, but the enjoyment is not in trying to second-guess what is going to happen so much as savoring the present and letting the story unfold as it is meant to. Anything less than that will spoil where the boys are headed.

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