Sunday, September 14, 2008

'Righteous Kill' review

It seems an imposition on somebody's part to ask Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to use their iconic power to prop up and inflate "Righteous Kill," a tricked-up and often turgid police thriller. At least these two aging virtuosi of the Method don't altogether submit to the temptation of mailing in their performances. And they seem comfortable enough in each other's company on-screen to make you wish there were more scenes that allowed them to just kick back and riff. It'd be a lot more enjoyable than watching the movie strain for clarity -- or cleverness.

De Niro and Pacino play, respectively, Turk and Rooster, veteran New York Police Department detectives whose skills have stayed sharp while their fortitude has been worn down by decades of sordid criminal behavior. Once (though it's not clear how long ago), Turk crossed the line by planting evidence on a child killer who'd been freed from custody by that handy-dandy leitmotif, the legal technicality. Turk's gambit puts the scum back in the hole, but it springs open a growing impatience on his part with due process that leads him and his partner to some late-career snafus and botched arrests.

Now there's a serial killer on the loose in their precinct who leaves calling cards with doggerel. The victims are all criminals who somehow got away with murder, rape and other heinous activities. Turk and Rooster aren't trusted by their superior (Brian Dennehy) to handle the case alone. So another, younger duo (John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg) is brought into the investigation. Through their eyes -- and Rooster's -- it begins to look as though the killer could only be "one of their own," i.e., a rogue cop. And when that child killer turns up dead after the courts have once again set him free, the suspicions become more -- how to put this without spoiling things? -- specific in their focus.

"Righteous Kill's" script is credited to "Inside Man's" Russell Gewirtz, and you wonder how the sleek, nuanced flow of that earlier movie evaded this one. The movie seems so intent on deploying its gimmicks that it clumsily shoves aside any genuine character development. Turk's girlfriend and colleague, Karen (the habitually intriguing Carla Gugino), carries a few quirks that would have been worth fleshing out even just a little bit more.

But everything, even logic, is sacrificed in favor of the movie's main event: the commingling of De Niro and Pacino's thickening personas. There's no getting around the fact that the erstwhile young lions are long in the tooth. The pouches beneath Pacino's eyes, for instance, look deep enough to carry his laundry -- and yours. But those eyes can still burn a hole through the screen, even in what for all practical purposes is a "Law & Order" episode bent and stretched beyond all hope or reason.

"Righteous Kill." MPAA rating: R for violence, pervasive vulgarisms and brief drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. In general release.