Why'd Ya Do It, Guys?

Robert De Niro, left, and Al Pacino portray veteran detectives who stray from a moral path in the thriller from director Jon Avnet.
Robert De Niro, left, and Al Pacino portray veteran detectives who stray from a moral path in the thriller from director Jon Avnet. (Overture Films)
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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008

Back in the day, actors Al Pacino and Bobby De Niro could set a movie projector afire. "The Godfather." "Dog Day Afternoon." "Mean Streets." "Taxi Driver." "Serpico." "Raging Bull." It was frightening.

This was the golden age of American cinema, when there was enough leftover energy in the air that you could make a buddy-cop movie in Gotham without either of the two and still come up with "The French Connection."

Fast-forward to today, when movie stars Pacino and De Niro share scenes for only the second time, and we find out that they light up "Righteous Kill," a serviceable buddy-cop movie in Gotham, with just enough firepower to make the projector flicker along in B-movie fashion. It's astonishing how much intensity and focus these two have lost, but the picture itself is not all that bad -- if you can get the collapsing-career thing out of your head.

Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) are aging detectives who think retirement is an early death. They are still lethal on the firing range, Turk has a rough-sex thing with Karen Corelli, a much younger evidence tech (the engaging Carla Gugino), and the men hack it out in the precinct gym with a pair of younger detectives, Perez and Riley (John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg). Turk is also happy to beat the snot out of Spider, a Harlem club owner. (This is 50 Cent, billed here as Curtis Jackson. I think this means he's thinking of himself as an actor now. Uh-oh.)

What director Jon Avnet wants to get at is what all good veteran-cop movies get at: the acidic erosion of a good man's soul from long years of dealing with malice and murder and unpunished cruelty. Life has gotten complicated by this stage in a career, there's an awful lot of gray, and the concept of "good" is measured at 51 percent. You just want to stay in the win column of the crime season.

What's required to do that is staked out early, in predictable fashion, when Turk and Rooster investigate the brutal murder of a young girl by a thug who skates on the indictment because of false testimony. Turk, a simmering pot of hostility, plants a gun on the child killer and sends him away to someplace cheerful like Attica. Rooster knows, but says nothing. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason: your standard moral complication.

But now a vigilante serial killer is ramping justice up a notch. Someone is out there blowing away the scumbag pimps, the smirking rapists and the child molesters who are eluding prosecution. Beat the rape charge, pinhead? Say hello to my little friend! BLAM! BLAM! HAHAHA!

Then the killer leaves a bit of really bad doggerel on (or once, in) the victim, some quatrain that's meant to echo the Son of Sam notes about the gutters of New York being filled with stale wine, dog vomit and urine, etc.

The plot conceit is that there's apparently no mystery. We see Turk, long after the fact, describing the slayings on a grainy videotape that is being watched by internal affairs officers. He's saying how he's killed this one and that one, a total of 14. Avnet cuts back and forth between the confession and the investigation to get another obvious plot twist going, that of The Bad Cop Investigating Himself.

There has to be a twist in these kinds of things, and there is, although this one is not particularly twisted. You want Pacino and De Niro, get "The Godfather: Part II." You want a ho-hum flick about aging Gotham cops and a meditation on the withering away of talent and drive, go for this "Kill."

Righteous Kill (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and brief drug use.

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