Righteous Kill: De Niro and Pacino, ReHEATed

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Ken Regan / Overture Films / AP

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Righteous Kill.

For going on four decades, they've been the odd couple of Method movie stars: implosive vs. explosive, compressed energy and showboating showmanship. Robert De Niro caught our eye and kept it by being watchful, a figure of static electricity, a hoarder of his characters' motives. He did more by seeming to do nothing. Al Pacino was the total opposite: he laid it all on the table. Then he sliced it up, gobbled it down and spat it out. Before leaving the room, he'd scream at the table, smash it to pieces and use one of the splinters to pick his teeth.

Since the early '70s the two have dominated dramatic acting in films; when Brando abdicated, they seized the crown. Just the pictures De Niro made with Martin Scorsese would constitute a dream career for any almost other performer: Mean Streets in 1973, then Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas. Same with Pacino's "S" movies: Serpico and Scarecrow in '73, followed by Scarface, Sea of Love, Scent of a Woman. De Niro and Pacino played father and son in The Godfather Part II but never shared a scene. In the 1995 Heat they spent nearly three hours in the same movie — with De Niro running a heist gang and Pacino as the pursuing cop — but their only encounters were, literally, a cup of coffee and a shootout. So there ought to be a little want-see attending Righteous Kill, a police suspenser where the two stars are finally together for a whole film.

Ought to be, but isn't. That the movie proves to be a nonevent has something to do with the clichés accruing around the cop genre (where the killer is always a cop), and more to do with the passing of time. Director Jon Avnet — who's done some decent work (The War) but was also responsible for this year's lamentable 88 Minutes, also starring Pacino — gives the new movie the grimy New York look and a generic intensity. Yet this is a film that missed its moment. Instead of the meeting of maestros at the top of their form, Righteous Kill has the feeling of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds facing off for the first time in an exhibition game. It's like Old Timers' Day at the Motion Picture Home.

The original script, by Russell Gewirtz (Inside Man), actually has an idea that hasn't been truncheoned to death in a zillion other movies: What if a cop were a serial killer? A peace officer certainly has motive, means and opportunity to knock off a dozen or so malefactors who probably deserve to die but have escaped conviction. The cop could truly believe that killing them is nothing less than righteous. He might think of himself as De Niro's Travis Bickle did in Taxi Driver, using his gun to wash the New York streets clean of their wretched refuse. And at the beginning of this film we are shown a grainy video of Turk (De Niro), who says he's been a cop for more than 30 years, "and in that time I have killed 14 people." The rest of the movie spells out his complicity and that of his partner Rooster (Pacino).

All their decades together chasing bad guys has given Turk and Rooster similar views of the citizenry. Similar and simple: you never go wrong assuming the worst. "I hate scumbags," Turk says. "I like shooting people." He explains that he joined the police force for the badge and the gun. "Most people respect a badge. Everybody respects a gun." After a few suspicious homicides, both men undergo a brief psychiatric evaluation. When the shrink asks, "How do you feel when innocent people get killed?" Rooster replies, "You know, I sorta got numb to it." He's been around too long for remorse; that just slows down the trigger-finger reflex, gets in the way of the job.

Also in the way, on this meandering trip to another climactic shootout, are a few detectives (John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg and the always smart, luscious, screen-saving Carla Gugino) and some perps: Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent, as a Harlem drug lord; Trilby Glover as a lawyer with a coke habit; Oleg Taktarov as a slab-torsoed Russian mobster. They're around mostly to provide alibis and victims, and for spaces between the dialogues of the stars — the two old men.

You see, De Niro is 65, Pacino 68. (Brian Dennehy, who plays their precinct captain, is 70.) Isn't there a mandatory retirement age for cops? And, in New York, don't a lot of them take full-pay retirement after 20 years? Rooster describes retirement as "death with benefits." His work is his life, and he won't give either of them up. But a movie demands a little verisimilitude. Impolitic as it might be to make this observation, it's also unavoidable when talking about a movie like Righteous Kill: the camera is a remorseless appraiser of advancing age.

De Niro has weathered pretty well. In a bed scene with Gugino, his skin still clings tautly to his body. The scowl that was the actor's early trademark has settled into a thin lip-line of resignation; no catastrophe laid on Turk can surprise or disappoint him. Maybe De Niro has kept his physical instrument in shape all these years by husbanding his gestures. But Pacino has been a perpetual motion machine. In this movie he still is: dancing like a boxer, chewing gum, his feet banging out a nervous paradiddle. Eventually, gravity takes its revenge. In remorseless closeup, and beneath his strangely youthful hairdo, he reveals the forehead furrows, a murder of crowlines, bags like backpacks under his eyes. He and De Niro are men whose faces I've watched and studied more than my own. I'm sure I'd look a wreck under the coroner's camera of this movie. But I didn't submit myself to it; Pacino did.

The film wants its viewers to see it as a summation of the stars' relationship. Turk says of Rooster that "I'm always the one following him through the door," just as De Niro made his first dramatic-movie splash a couple years after Pacino earned raves for his junkie role in Panic in Needle Park. Rooster tells Turk, "You're the one I looked up to all my life and could never be." It's as if Pacino was admitting that his bantam-weight hyper-hammery, the excesses of yelling and kvelling and strutting and posturing, were his way of compensating for not having the still center of rage that Bobby D. located early in his career and made his own.

What's strange about Pacino's patented style is that, as Michael Corleone in the first two Godfather films, his acting had exactly that quiet menace, the satanic power that whispers, the death sentence of a single glance. But since, say, Dog Day Afternoon in 1975, he went the other way, playing the little guy who compensates by going big. It's a tactic more theatrical than cinematic, and Pacino usually makes it work by ensuring that he dominates any film he's in. A two-hander like Righteous Kill, though, demands teamwork. Pacino is still laying it all on the table; by playing more subtly, by demonstrating that being seen is often enough, De Niro underacts him under it.