One doesn’t have to live a long time to realize that no good deed goes unpunished, that terrible things happen to good people and not-so-good people aren’t consistently held accountable for their actions. After decades of serving in law enforcement and witnessing an array of injustices, the last frontier before one reaches ‘vigilante land’ can easily be breached. “Righteous Kill” (Jon Avnet) explores this theme through the lives of two NYPD detectives.
David ‘Turk’ Fisk (Robert De Niro) and Thomas ‘Rooster’ Cowan (Al Pacino) have logged many, many miles on the job and have arrived at a crossroads that inspires one of them to bend the law to tie up ends that the justice system leaves loosely knotted. Over the course of the film, five dirtbags (a skateboarding pimp, a gun runner, a rapist, a Catholic child-molester, and a drug trafficker) come face to face with the certainty that their immoral and illegal ways will end. The audience knows from the start that Turk and Rooster are enabling, if not participating in, the unsanctioned kicking of the bad people’s buttocks. The rest of the NYPD thinks it has a string of murders with the same modus operandi (clean entry and exit, poetic calling card) more or less like their usual fare. Forensic scientist Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino) and detectives Simon Perez (John Leguizamo) and Ted Riley (Donnie Wahlberg) eventually suspect that the killer executes (no pun intended) too efficiently to be a civilian.
The majority of the film is a series of flashbacks. “Righteous Kill” portrays Turk and Rooster via deliberate point-counter-point that can, depending on how it’s perceived, lead the viewer to consider that the real killer’s identity isn’t the same one the story is pitching. While a fine-toothed dissection of plot development would reveal snags (how does a defendant get acquitted of homicide charges and somehow still land in prison?), seeing Robert De Niro and Al Pacino circling the thin line between cop and criminal paints a giant grin on the face. The last time they shared screen-time was in director-writer Michael Mann’s 1995 riveting heist drama “Heat.” The twenty-first century may not have been too generous to De Niro’s and Pacino’s acting careers (“Hide and Seek” and “88 Minutes” respectively, for example), but “Righteous Kill” has pulled both actors up to much more savory environs.
The improvement is a function of behind-the-scenes parties, specifically in directing and writing. Jon Avnet also directed “88 Minutes,” “Red Corner,” “Up Close & Personal,” “The War,” and “Fried Green Tomatoes.” How did he get from a legal suspense drama set in China that starred Richard Gere and Bai Ling to “88 Minutes”? He spent the 90s producing and executive-producing theatrical films and television shows. A preliminary compare-and-contrast reveals that the writers contribute substantially to the equation. Gary Scott Thompson (of “The Fast and the Furious”) is credited with “88 Minutes” and Russell Gewirtz (of
“The Inside Man”) with “Righteous Kill.”
It’s not a stretch to posit that when Jon Avnet wears the director’s hat, whatever elements offer a satisfying or unsatisfying film experience can be attributed to more than his own leadership skills and creativity—-other voices chime in too. Furthermore, I’d like to recognize Russell Gewirtz for a screenplay that boasts humor, an impressive plot twist, and for setting up plenty of room for De Niro and Pacino to get their grooves back in order.