That log-line hardly does the epic Heat justice. There's also a thrilling bank-robbery/gun-fight in the film, and an exciting/tragic final confrontation between the De Niro and Pacino characters.
I don't need to remind you that these actors are veritable giants of the crime saga/cop genres. Or that they can hold the audience rapt with their magnetism, grit, charisma and intensity.
Now, almost fifteen years after Heat, these great cinematic lions roar back to the screen in another collaboration, Jon Avnet's cop-thriller Righteous Kill. De Niro and Pacino remain, as always, eminently watchable. But let me summarize the film this way: Righteous Kill is no Heat.
In fact, it's not even lukewarm.
I saw a preview for Righteous Kill in a theater last year and I could discern even from that brief trailer that it was going to be a less-than-superb outing for these respected veterans. But, as I told my wife, Kathryn when she saw that Righteous Kill had arrived via Netflix, I simply could not resist the draw of another De Niro/Pacino match-up. Better yet, this time they would be playing partners, not antagonists...a virtual guarantee, I hoped, of silver screen frisson.
Sadly, Pacino and De Niro don't share much chemistry or again - heat - It's a result, I believe of a mechanical, gimmicky script that requires both men to play their cards close to the vest in the vain hope that a lame "twist" ending will have at least a shot at working.
Unfortunately, the final twist won't surprise anyone, and that fact makes Righteous Kill a total bust. The film is loaded with ridiculous red herrings so that the final "surprise" will (hopefully) shatter your senses, but these red herrings are all recognizable as such....and terribly trite. Since the entire film is structured simply to deceive you in the last act, there's no human interest remaining when the trick ending arrives. Just a feeling of a wasted opportunity and deflation.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Righteous Kill dramatizes the story of two NYPD vets, the hotheaded Turk (Robert De Niro) and cool-as-a-cucumber chess-master "Rooster" (Al Pacino). As the film opens, we watch a videotape of what appears to be a confession. Turk explains to the camera how -- in his thirty years on the force -- he has secretly murdered fourteen law-breaking scum-balls. They deserved it, of course,. but he still broke the law, framing them for crimes and committing homicide.
Inter cut with De Niro's confession tape is the story of the investigation that (we believe...) finally brings Turk to account for his crimes. We learn how, following the murder of a little girl, Turk framed the perpetrator, Charlie Randell, after the thug was acquitted by a jury. And, how, afterwards, Turk "lost his faith." Where the legal system wouldn't work, Turk would intervene, murdering pimps, drug dealers and even pedophile priests. He plants evidence and leaves cryptic poems at the crime scenes. Or so we are led to believe.
Now, by a twist of fate, Turk and Rooster investigate together the very murders Turk ostensibly committed. The trail of murders suggests that a cop is behind them. Is Turk covering his trail, or does he want to get caught?
Joining in this homicide investigation is a sexy medical examiner, Karen (Carla Gugino), Turk's girlfriend. Karen conveniently (for plot's sake...) enjoys very rough sex, and she and Turk play kinky games to keep their affair hot. One night, he breaks into her apartment and assaults her when she's not expecting him. Afterwards, she suggests it wasn't rough enough for her. On another occasion, Karen gets all hot and bothered as Rooster describes how roughly Turk subdued a drug dealer, Spider (50 Cent). Could Karen be the murderer? Why else does she have files about all the victims on her home computer?
Investigating alongside Turk, Rooster and Karen are two up-and-coming young cops, played by Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo. Leguizamo's character seems to carry a grudge against Turk, and he tells the precinct captain (Brian Dennehy) that Turk is the murderer. Is he framing Turk for some hidden agenda?
What all this nonsense comes down to, essentially, is a final revelation scene in which the killer is exposed and then quickly killed so that we don't have to examine the morality of his actions. Speaking in generalities, Righteous Kill is about partners -- one fire, one ice -- and one of them is a murderer.
Watching Righteous Kill, you desperately want the film to play as tragedy -- the story of a good man who has, because of his job, because of his time dealing with criminals -- lost his way and fallen from grace. What you get, however, is something much less...righteous. This is a robot narrative in which motives remain oblique and the final revelation packs no punch...because Turk and Rooster simply don't stand out as "real" people. They are machines serving a larger machine, telling us only what we need to know to preserve the sanctity of the film's denouement.
Because Righteous Kill desires more than anything to surprise you, to trick you, it straitjackets all the actors to an unacceptable degree. It makes them preserve a secret that isn't worth hiding in the first place. The actors thus cloak the very qualities we want from them: some sense of humanity, tragedy or understanding. It's strange how Righteous Kill subverts itself. By tagging the trick ending as the most important aspect of the film, nothing else works. You get two great actors in De Niro and Pacino and handcuff them to a script that won't let them act, except as grinding exposition cogs.
I can see how Righteous Kill might have been a remarkable movie, but the screenplay would require a massive rewrite. You'd have to ditch the surprise ending and get into the hearts and souls of these two wounded men -- into their family lives, into their histories, into their disappointments and victories. You'd have to see how their jobs affected them, and how -- over the years -- the job took away hope, innocence and idealism.
You know the kind of movie I'm talking about, right? It would be like one Michael Mann, Brian De Palma or Martin Scorsese might direct
In that scenario, De Niro and Pacino would be free to do what they do best. They'd be permitted to emote, instead of acting on remote.