After occupying separate timeframes in “The Godfather: Part II” and sharing just a few minutes of “Heat,” two iconic actors finally get a significant chunk of screen time together — if not the material they deserve — in “Righteous Kill,” the third and by no small margin the weakest crime picture to topline Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. At once groaningly predictable and needlessly convoluted, this gimmicky yarn about New York cops trailing a vigilante in their midst could nonetheless make a sufficient B.O. killing, assuming Overture Films can tempt auds with a dream pairing that promises more than it delivers.
“Righteous Kill” primes the viewer to suspect a red herring from its miscalculated opening scene: a scratchy, black-and-white videotape of an aging homicide detective (De Niro), known to his fellow officers as Turk, openly confessing that he’s committed 14 murders during his 30-plus years with the NYPD.
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As Turk says in his defense, these 14 victims — a pimp, a drug dealer, a rapist, a pedophile priest and various other scourges on society who had successfully eluded prosecution — all had it coming. (The killer’s highly literate m.o. is to leave a sinister poem at every crime scene; talk about poetic justice.) The screenplay by Russell Gewirtz (“Inside Man”) lurches back and forth in time as Turk, in a voiceover that tries too hard to spin world-weary cynicism into pulp profundity, details the murders and his colleagues’ attempts to solve them.
As played by De Niro with his trademark short fuse and staccato expletives, Turk is all too easily provoked to violence; he’s kept in line by his longtime partner, Rooster (Pacino), whose early dialogue consists almost entirely of telling his more hot-headed pal to relax. Rounding out the team are gorgeous crime-scene investigator Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino), with whom Turk has vigorous sex on the side, and ambitious up-and-comers Ted Riley (Donnie Wahlberg) and Simon Perez (John Leguizamo), who quickly convince themselves that only a fellow cop — specifically, Turk — could have executed these lowlifes.
As early as the 20-minute mark, it’s clear enough where all this is headed, so it’s unfortunate that the film takes roughly another 75 minutes to get there. Unable or unwilling to match the visceral chops and moral provocations of superior serial-killer chillers, “Righteous Kill” is content to be a twisty genre exercise; it’s like “Seven” as reimagined by M. Night Shyamalan.
And so, despite the easy, instinctive rapport between De Niro and Pacino, who are both very much at home playing rough-edged men of action — and who settle almost immediately into pleasurable buddy-comedy rhythms that bespeak decades of trust earned in the line of duty — pic provides a meager showcase for the combustible duo. If the sight of these two thesps onscreen can’t help but generate a frisson of excitement, “Righteous Kill” ultimately makes a good case for keeping them apart: There’s no sense of the doomed spiritual kinship that seemed to bind the actors across time and space in their previous films, and Gewirtz’s tortuous scenario allows them little breathing room.
Elsewhere, Gugino brings an appealing toughness to the much-coveted Karen, who’s often on the receiving end of lewd banter from her male peers, and Trilby Glover shows some sparkle as a coke-snorting lawyer who goes undercover for Turk and Rooster. The fine Melissa Leo, however, is wasted in a throwaway role as a grief-stricken mother.
Though likely to enjoy a longer, friendlier reception than “88 Minutes,” pic reps another head-scratching collaboration between Pacino and director Jon Avnet (one of the 12 producers credited here). With d.p. Denis Lenoir and editor Paul Hirsch, Avnet has assembled an erratic tech package bogged down by portentous slow-mo, tinted flashbacks and other stylistic distractions. Bridgeport, Conn., doubles unpersuasively as a weirdly underpopulated Manhattan, despite some shooting in Brooklyn, Queens and Harlem.