Thursday, June 27, 2019

Reserved Seating Goes All Pacino: RIGHTEOUS KILL

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who would have named this screenplay Re-Heat.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: Our Al Pacino series continues with the much maligned Righteous Kill, which re-teams Robert De Niro and Al Pacino 13 years after their showdown in Michael Mann’s crime classic Heat. Instead of going head-to-head on opposite sides of the law again, Righteous Kill teams the acting legends as longtime partners on the police force. They’re going after a serial killer dubbed “Poetry Boy,” who leaves poems on his victims as a taunt to the detectives on his trail. The killer goes after scumbags linked to detectives “Turk” (De Niro) and “Rooster” (Pacino), which arises suspicion from fellow cops (Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg, and Brian Dennehy) that “Poetry Boy” is one of their own.

Rob: This is such a weird cast. I can’t even explain why. There’s this idiosyncratic charm to all the clashing energies. I love it. Like, Brian Dennehy. Sure!

Adam: Brian Dennehy (who’s awesome) has been the same age for 40 years.
Righteous Kill was poorly received when it came out in 2008 and this was only my second time seeing the movie myself. Back then, I thought it was pretty terrible and my opinion hasn’t changed in 2019, although I was able to enjoy it for little things which we’ll get into later in this review. The biggest issues with Righteous Kill are: a) De Niro and Pacino are playing tough-guy cops, but they’re old in this film and their macho posturing feels comical as a result, like two guys who can’t let go of their prime and are stuck in denial and b) The material here sucks. This thriller is very similar to Pacino’s 2017 misfire Hangman, which went direct to VOD. Righteous Kill feels like a total waste of De Niro and Pacino’s talents. Many other less-skilled actors could have taken on the parts of “Turk” and “Rooster.” Other than this being the opportunity that presented itself, it’s hard to figure out what made both actors say “this is the one” to bring them back together on screen with Righteous Kill. It’s generic to the edge of parody.

Rob: This was my first time seeing Righteous Kill, and I agree with everything you’re saying. This is, at best, a JV police thriller that completely wastes its overqualified cast. I like your “Re-Heat,” gag, and I joked to you in a text that Righteous Kill is Heat’s little brother trying to prove he’s as cool as his older sibling. De Niro and Pacino are totally sleepwalking. Carla Gugino has nothing real to do and about ten minutes of screen time. The plot is a slog with a twist that feels more like a shrug to the audience than any kind of effective revelation.
Adam: I felt bad for Carla Gugino. Her character is there to be an object for male lust and then a plot device to fridge the hero by being assaulted near the end. Gugino is such a great actor that she can make a character like this not seem as gross as it actually is.

Rob: For sure. Still, there’s something about all the posturing wanna-be toughness (not in plot, but in production design, cinematography, and editing) that kind of endeared me to Righteous Kill. It’s trying so, so very hard. For example, it’s edited in an elliptical style where scenes will frequently interrupt and bounce over each other. Flashbacks, framing devices, unreliable narrators, etc. It’s an effective technique in the hands of Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, or Christopher Nolan. It evokes dreamlike mysteries and — even more importantly — keeps the narrative propulsive by separating the wheat from the chaff. In Righteous Kill, however, it makes everyone look doddering and confused. Still, it’s a solid attempt, I guess? It’s trying! Look, I just saw Annabelle Comes Home, and I’m desperate to give a movie credit for trying.

Adam: Yeah, those Conjuring Universe movies are on autopilot for sure. I’ll go as far as to say that Righteous Kill is interestingly bad. There are elements around the edges I enjoyed. For example, this could double as our baseball review for the month because (for no reason really) there are several nods to the sport, including De Niro coaching a little league team, De Niro playing softball (as Pacino watches while sitting on his motorcycle just off the diamond), De Niro and Pacino using a Ted Williams batting .406 analogy to prove a point of how badass they are, and De Niro tossing off another analogy about the infield fly rule and the criminal justice system. I also found the killer’s motive amusing. This is so a movie meant for two leads in their 30s or 40s. When the cops are 70 years old, the engine driving the killer’s motivation seems absurd.
Rob: I loved that infield fly rule analogy so much that I’m going to repeat it here: “You know what I think about before I pull the trigger? I think about the infield fly rule. I love that fucking rule. It assumes the worst of everybody. It says, ‘Sorry batter, you're a schmuck for poppin' up with runners on. And you stupid ass infielder, you don't get to cheat and drop the ball just because you caught a break.’ My favorite part, the batter's out but the runners advance at their own risk. That's the way life should be: You can be a motherfucker at your own risk...or not.” See what we’re saying about little brother posturing? It’s not even Boondock Saints-level dude bro philosophy. It’s diet swagger. It wants to be cool, but it’s just too tired to be bothered. It’s got that “Good enough?” flavor. And in that, as you said, it’s interestingly bad.

Adam: The climax is pretty great in that it’s like Pacino and De Niro are trying to re-enact the ending of Heat from memory and all of a sudden these guys are limber enough to run and jump over guard rails. Question for you: did you think the plot being as jumbled as it was (to make the killer’s reveal into a twist) added anything to the film? I think a lot of the psychological element is lost this way. This movie should have been Insomnia to land more dramatic effect, but instead it plays out like a lurid early '90s thriller from Hollywood Pictures. I’m all for that in theory, but not when it’s a rare pairing of Pacino and De Niro. What I’m saying is, let’s go in a time machine and remake this in 1990 starring James Caan as Rooster and Robert Duvall as Turk.
Rob: That version sounds great. And no, the twist was absolutely not worth the jumbled narrative. Actually, funny thing: I’ll sometimes read along with a movie’s Wikipedia summary while watching it, just in case I miss any details or zone out and get lost. Righteous Kill’s twist is spoiled in the first sentence. So I even knew what was going to happen, and it STILL didn’t feel like an effective choice. Come to think of it, it’s actually weird to be reviewing this for All Pacino. It felt like he only had slightly more screen time than Gugino. How many lines did he actually have in the first hour? Did he just wander in? “Bobby, you making a movie!? What if I was in the scene? Let’s just riff!” Speaking of De Niro, you mentioned before that you had an issue with young De Niro’s intimidation factor versus old De Niro’s. Did you want to elaborate?

Adam: I’ll start by saying that I’m a fan of Robert De Niro overall, but old De Niro acting tough is more embarrassing than almost any other older actor acting tough. What makes it so bad is you can tell he thinks he has the upper hand but there’s no self-awareness. It’s like when a 4’8” guy is drunk and threatens to kick a 7’7” dude’s ass. Pacino, on the other hand, is less physically imposing than De Niro but seems more likely to be crazy. It works better. De Niro is great at playing pathetic and bruised (a recent example is in the movie Stone), but Righteous Kill thinks his character is awesome when he’s definitely not. Did you ever see the MAD TV skit poking fun at this movie?

Rob: Haha. Is it bad that I’d still watch that? Also, are there any comics who do an early Pacino impression? That’s the real challenge. Anyway, I did my best to give Righteous Kill the benefit of the doubt, but it’s still a Mark Off.

Adam: Going through 2000s Pacino is gonna be a real doozy.

Rob: Is that shade against S1M0NE? I hope not. We’ll be back next week with our June discoveries! Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. If you look at this and the previous year's "88 Minutes", it seems like Jon Avnet was sent from the future to ruin Al Pacino. Like The Terminator, but successful in his mission.

    1. 88 Minutes make Righteous Kill look like The Silence of the Lambs.

    2. You think Avnet cashed in those "Up Close and Personal" chips to make 88 Minutes and Righteous Kill?
      Or the I.O.U.s he collected when he delivered Red Corner to the masses?
      Or maybe he self financed using that mad The War money.

    3. It's certainly a filmography. He has produced quite a bit, so I'm sure that's his strong suit. I would love to learn more about how him making 2 Pacino movies in back-to-back years came to fruition.

  2. I worked as an assistant to a producer on this when they shot in Connecticut. After hearing a conversation between two producers about the script being "fucking terrible" my dreams of movie magic were tarnished.