Righteous Kill (2008): Jon Avnet’s Crime Thriller, Starring Pacino and De Niro

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino’s star status and Jon Avnet’s stylish direction compensate up to a point for the intricately plotted but essentially gimmicky and implausible Righteous Kill, an overreaching crimer that combines elements of the classic policiers and serial killer genres, such as Se7en and The Usual Suspects.

The sheer pleasure of seeing De Niro and Pacino acting together as partners, rather than rivals, and appearing together in practically every scene is worth the price of admission for this quintessentially New York cop movie, which goes out of its way to be original and deviate from the format as developed by Sidney Lumet, Don Siegel, Clint Eastwood, and others.

Inevitably, as a result of the talent involved, “Righteous Kill” becomes a self-reflexive and self-referential experience. This is the third and best teaming of the two iconic actors, after “The Godfather, Part Two,” in which they didn’t have any scene together, and Michael Mann’s “Heat,” in which they shared the screen for only one scene.

Both De Niro and Pacino have played screen cops before, particularly Pacino in a wide range of obsessive cops, from the real-life, Christ-like policeman in Lumet’s “Serpico,” to the problematic and controversial cop in “Cruising,” to Harold Becker’s noir “Sea of Love,” in which he portrayed a stressed-out alcoholic cop, all the way to Jon Avnet’s abysmal “88 Minutes.”

In this picture, De Niro and Pacino star as a pair of veteran New York City police detectives on the trail of a vigilante serial killer. Though both are Method actors, the thespians subscribe to different techniques, with De Niro underacting and Pacino overacting. While watching the film, you could easily see them switching roles. The strong rapport between them makes up for a lot of shortcomings of the movie, which likely will divide reviewers with mixed to negative critical response.

The distributor, Overture Films, might have been aware of the film’s problems as press screening were held rather late. Even so, the company has extensively advertised their acquired picture over the past two weeks, which stands to make decent coin on opening weekend before the negative reviews exert their impact.

For once, the description of “Righteous Kill” as a psychological thriller is accurate and does justice to the plot. Early on, it’s established that one of them may be a killer on the loose, and savvy viewers will be able to figure out midway the central gimmick, though lay audiences may be kept guessing until the very last reel.

Jon Avnet is no stranger to the serial killer genre, having directed “Copy Cat” in 1995. Here, assisted by a smart if tricky scenario by Russell Gewirtz (who penned Spike Lee’s “Inside Man”) and lensing of Denis Lenoir, he has made a stylish, quite entertaining if not entirely absorbing policier that may be more captivating in subtext than text, stronger in multi-nuanced characterization than in logical contents. Indeed, to enjoy the film, you have to suspend disbelief, succumb to the yarn’s morally debatable and dubious premise, and disregard the repetitive use of some stylistic devices, such as confessions, shot in grainy black-and-white and addressing the camera directly.

The film begins as a critique of the ineffectiveness of the legal system. A serial murderer walks the streets of Manhattan, targeting violent felons who have fallen through the cracks of the judicial system. All the victims are suspected criminals whose bodies are found accompanied by a four-line poem justifying the killing. The killer’s mission is to do what the cops, lawyers, judges, and other bureaucrats can’t do on their own–take the bad guys off the streets for good. (Just listening to De Niro’s voice-over narration about removing the scum of the earth gives the chills, serving as a reminder of his iconic role of Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” thirty years ago).

There is no doubt that Gewirtz is a knowledgeable writer, highly aware of the long, cherished tradition of American police movies and TV series, resulting in a multi-layered drama, in which each of the central characters has secrets, vulnerabilities, and idiosyncrasies.

Possibly inspired by the twisty closure of “The Usual Suspects,” Gewirtz begins from the end of the story and work backwards. Like his scenario “Inside Man,” which is better and more credible, “Righteous Kill” contains complicated characters, sharp dialogue with some witty one-liners, unexpected humor, and plot twists and turns that aim, but do not always succeed, at countering audience (and genre) expectations.

When a notorious pimp becomes one of the killer’s victims, highly decorated detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) are called in to investigate. This case could easily be the biggest one in their 30 years on the force. With the unwitting help of a local drug dealer (Curtis Jackson), the detectives follow the few clues they have, but their search soon turns inward, eventually leading them full circle as they realize the killer may be one of their own.

The film reveals its red herring all too quickly, when De Niro confesses via black-and-white videos his commitment of no less than 14 murders during his 30-year-service. As in David Fincher’s superior “Seven,” the victims are scum of the earth: a drug dealer, a pimp, a rapist, a pedophile priest (who might have abused one or more of the cops), and so on. Also imitative of “Seven,” the killer is a literate man immersed in poetry as he always leave a note consisting of four lines, often in rhymes. In this and other respects, “Righteous Kill” is both portentous and pretentious.

As a vigilante film, demonstrating the ineffectual authority systems in dealing with crime and violence, leading office holders and ordinary citizens to take the law in their hands, “Righteous Kill” is just as movieish, problematic, and debatable as Jodie Foster’s star vehicle last year, “The Brave One,” directed by Neil Jordan.

Structurally, the tale follows three distinct acts, each with more or less the same running time. Unfortunately, the movie gets progressively weaker, and the last reel, which contains the dramatic, revelatory climax signals desperation and implausibility on the narrative level, hysteria and excess on the plot level, and heavy-handedness, with a touch of blatant sentimentality on the directing and acting levels.

Even so, despite the fact that “Righteous Kill” is too movieish, if offers some rewards, prime among which is a terrific ensemble of actors, from the stars all the way to those who play bit parts, such as Melissa Leo, again shining, after her bravura lead turn in “Frozen River.”

The supporting cast is terrific, including the beautiful and sexy Carla Gugini, as Karen Corelli, a crime investigator who’s dating Turk and like her talk raunchy and her sex down and dirty.

A generation separates between the vet cops, who are cynical and world-weary, though fearful of retirement and aging, as they confess to their shrink, and the new members of the force, Ted Riley (Donnie Wahlberg, Mark’s brother) and Simon Perez (John Leguizamo), ambitious up-and-coming officers who are the first to suspect and to act on their haunch that the vet killer is a cop.

Whether it’s a product of healthy competition, synergy, or just challenge, De Niro and Pacino must have energized each other for each is giving a much stronger performance than he has over the past decade or so. There is a comfort level and mutual trust that only pros who have known each other for a long time could accomplish.

The central characters, and the actors who play them are equally matched, sharing a brotherly relationship that is stronger than blood ties. Gewirtz and Avnet go out of their way to demonstrate the love and camaraderie of the world-weary cops, who don’t necessarily make the right choices but try to make understandable ones.

Technically speaking, it’s disappointing to observe Bridgeport, Connecticut unconvincingly standing in for Manhattan, though some scenes were shot in Brooklyn and Queens. It’s uncharacteristic of a polished helmer like Avnet to be sloppy in choosing his tale’s locations, and it may be a function of the budget.


Turk – Robert De Niro
Rooster – Al Pacino
Spider – Curtis Jackson
Karen Corelli – Carla Gugino
Det. Ted Riley – Donnie Wahlberg
Jessica – Trilby Glover
Natalya – Shirly Brener
Cheryl Brooks – Melissa Leo
Yevgeny Mugalat – Oleg Taktarov
Stein – Alan Rosenberg
Martin Baum – Alan Blumenfeld
Rambo – Rob Dyrdek
Hingis – Brian Dennehy
Det. Simon Perez – John Leguizamo


An Overture Films release presented with Millennium Films, in association with Emmett/Furla Films and Grosvenor Park Media. Produced by Rob Cowan, Avi Lerner, Randall Emmett, Jon Avnet, Lati Grobman, Alexandra Milchan, Daniel M. Rosenberg.
Executive producers: Danny Dimbort, Boaz Davidson, George Furla, Trevor Short. Co-producer, Marsha Oglesby.
Directed by Jon Avnet.
Screenplay: Russell Gewirtz.
Camera: Denis Lenoir.
Editor: Paul Hirsch.
usic:, Edward Shearmur; music supervisor, Ashley Miller.
Production designer: Tracey Gallacher.
Art director: Christy Wilson.
Set decorator: Kathy Lucas.
Costume designer: Debra McGuire.
Sound: Mathew Price; supervising sound editor, G. Michael Graham.
Visual effects supervisor: Vesselina Hary Georgieva.
Visual effects: Worldwide FX; additional visual effects, Identity Studios.
Stunt coordinator: Buddy Joe Hooker.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 100 Minutes.