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

Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Al Pacino star as a pair of veteran New York City police detectives on the trail of a vigilante serial killer in the psychological thriller Righteous Kill.
An intricately plotted mystery, Righteous Kill also features hip-hop superstar Curtis Jackson, Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo, and Donnie Wahlberg.

The film is directed by Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes, Red Corner) and written by Russell Gewirtz (Inside Man).

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 can’t do on their owntake the bad guys off the streets for good.

When a notorious pimp becomes one of the killer’s victims, highly decorated detectives Turk (Robert De Niro) and Rooster (Al 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 (played by Curtis Jackson) the detectives follow what 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.

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino hold a unique place in the public imagination. Known for their intensity and unforgettable performances in some of the grittiest, most respected urban dramas of the past 30 years, until now the Oscar-winning actors have shared only a few minutes of screen time. Righteous Kill marks the first time audiences will see them together in almost every scene of a movie.

“When you’re told that you can you come and work on a movie with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, it’s very hard to say no,” says producer Rob Cowan. “These two guys are iconic. I think that for everybody it was kind of a magical thing and it drew a lot of people to the project. It was certainly terrific watching them on set.”

Daniel Rosenberg, another of the film’s producers, says he would have been excited to work with just one of the film’s great lead actors. “From a producer’s standpoint, having them together in a movie is the true definition of synergy. The whole is even greater than the sum of the two parts.”

Randall Emmett, co-chair of Emmett/Furla Films and one of the film’s producers, had been looking for a property for Robert De Niro for some time. “When Avi Lerner and I came across this script, we felt it was perfect for him. He responded to it, and then the next step was kind of backwards, because we didn’t have a director. The first name that came to us was Jon Avnet, a director we’d worked with before and respected.”

Lerner, co-chairman of Millennium/Nu Image Films and the producer of over 200 films including The Black Dahlia and Rambo, says he was impressed by the way Avnet works. “I like his efficiency. I like the fact that he’s a director and a producer from the independent world and understands the way we work. And he’s a very, very sensitive person. He knows how to show the relationship between characters.”

For his part, veteran director and producer Jon Avnet was elated to have a chance to work with De Niro, who has won two Oscars and been nominated for four others. Avnet went to New York to meet De Niro and talk with him about the script. When the conversation turned to casting, De Niro suggested Al Pacino for the role of his partner.

“You know, Al and I weren’t actually in any scenes together in Godfather 2,” says De Niro. “We did Heat about 13, 14 years ago and it was great, but we were only together for a few minutes on screen. When I said, ‘Well, what about Al’ Jon just grabbed onto that.”
“Bob suggested I play the role,” recalls Pacino. “I read the script and felt it would be a good opportunity to work with Bob in a role I thought I could play.”

Speaking of working with his old friend and colleague, De Niro says: “If you know each other as long as we’ve known each other, you can draw on that background. And even if it’s a subtle sort of imperceptible thing, the comfort level is there because we have known each other so long. So interesting things kind of emerge.”
“Bob and I get along wellalways have,” adds Pacino, “So we have a mutual trust which always helps.

Everyone involved in the film knew immediately that Righteous Kill was becoming a once in a lifetime opportunity. “Once we knew we had them both, we all had to accept the reality of the responsibility,” says Emmett. “These are two legendary guys that the whole world looks at as the greatest actors of all time. Now we have to go make the movie.”

Screenwriter Russell Gewirtz hadn’t even considered the possibility of having two of Hollywood’s most honored actors in his second film. “I don’t think of actors when I write,” he says. “My characters have no faces, they’re not actors. They’re just who they are. In this case, what was most important to me was that the two characters had to be equally matched. You have to believe a relationship between these two, a brotherhood. And I can’t think of a better pairing than these two actors.”

Gewirtz burst onto the movie scene with his first film, Inside Man, an ingeniously plotted heist movie that was named one of the American Film Institute’s Movies of the Year for 2006. “After I finished writing Inside Man, I had this idea for a cop movie,” he says. “When I completed it, it took quite a while before it went anywhere. It wasn’t sent out to all the studios the way Inside Man had been. I didn’t get to buy that house I was looking at, and I got exposure to the long slow road of trying to get a movie made in Hollywood.

“After Inside Man hit, we got a lot of buzz and eventually the script made its way to Jon Avnet and Bob De Niro and then we had a movie,” he continues. “And then we got Al Pacino and we had an event.”

Like Inside Man, Righteous Kill is packed with complicated characters, sharp dialogue and unexpected plot turns that counter audience expectations. In writing the movie, Gewirtz says he decided to begin from the end of the story and work backwards. “I came up with the twist first. When I write a script like this, I look for that one momentgenerally at the end of the moviethat’s going to make people say, ‘What did I just see I’ve got to watch this again.’ I had that feeling when I watched The Usual Suspects and it inspired me. That’s when I started thinking, ‘I wish I could do that.'”

In the world of Righteous Kill, things aren’t exactly as they appear, observes Avnet. “The storytelling is unusual. There’s a fascinating character drama at the center of the piece that has its origins in a friendship that is 30 years old. In this drama, you basically are unraveling the layers until you get to the core of the characters. What are their secrets What are their vulnerabilities What are their idiosyncrasies”

Rosenberg believes these complex, fleshed-out characters make the story more compelling and emotionally resonant for audiences. “Too often the focus is on the twist in the plot instead of the characters,” says the producer. “Here, before you even get to the story, you’ve already gotten to know and love these two guys. They don’t necessarily make the right choices, but they make understandable, sympathetic choices and that’s what hooks you. Every thriller has got to have a few twists and turns, but if you don’t care about the characters then I don’t think you care about the twists”.

Cowan anticipates the film will receive a lot of attention at home and abroad. “We’ve got two of the biggest stars in the world and I think people always like to see what they’re doing,” he says. “Plus, it’s a great cop thriller, and a complex psychological story. This movie is all amped up leading towards the third act and it’s a full-on rollercoaster ride trying to figure out how the person that you’ve invested all your time in is going to be able to get out of this situation.”

Producer Randall Emmett adds: “Audiences love the unknown, and they love trying to figure out what’s going to happen before it happens. We’re all like children, when we go to the movies, and we sit there, and we try to figure out is it going to be this ending, did he do it, then who did it, and that’s what attracts us all to thrillers.