Jon Avnet | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R
You remember Righteous Kill, right? It’s the film that reunited De Niro and Pacino, only the second time they’d appeared on screen together. And while the first, Heat, offered just one scintillating scene, Righteous Kill presented them as a police partnership — loads of scenes together! For a certain generation of film fans — several generations, probably — this just screams potential.
And what you’ll also remember is that it got slated. Thoroughly. Its Tomatometer is a measly 20%, and if you narrow that to ‘Top Critics’ — i.e. people/magazines that can usually be relied upon — it drops to a shockingly low 9%. It’s hard to find a good word said about it anywhere, although the pull quotes on Rotten Tomatoes are worth reading just to see Sky News’ contribution: in a field of quotes bursting with negative words, Tim Evans tries to assert not only that “it’s an effective whodunnit but — more importantly — it poses refined, complex questions about how the law operates in a so-called civilised society.”
Critics can be wrong, of course. It’s all a matter of opinion, and all that. But this time, they’re really not.
So what’s wrong with Righteous Kill? Well, it’s dull. Properly dull — not slow, not measured, not leisurely — just dull. Director Jon Avnet tries to spice things up occasionally with some swishy camerawork or editing, apparently forgetting he’s lensing a procedural thriller about a pair of 60-something cops and not Miami Vice 2. Suffice to say, it doesn’t work; if anything, it makes it worse.
The plot is confused in its telling. Events appear to jump around with random flashbacks and forwards, but it’s actually mostly linear… except the scenes so disconnected that you’re left trying to work out what’s happening at what point even when it’s just happening in order. Screenwriter Russell Gewirtz was previously responsible for penning Inside Man, where a little of this kind of playing worked. Perhaps it’s Avnet’s fault, then; perhaps Gewirtz is a one hit wonder.
The film plays like a procedural/whodunnit as the cops try to work out who the serial killer might be. Except we know who it is from early on. Except Avnet muddles things so much that we’re not sure we know after all. Is this going to a be twist, just really badly hidden? No, it isn’t. So why not just own up to it and do a proper howcatchem, or psychological study, or whatever? Well, there is a twist, actually. But by the time we’ve worked out that we’re meant to know who the killer is all along, anyone passingly film literate will be beginning to realise there will be a twist — too many hoops are being jumped through in some scenes to cover up something we’re being explicitly told in others.
I’m trying not to give too much away here — goodness knows why, because I heartily recommend you never waste your time on this. Even if you can forgive the boringly convoluted plot, there’s nothing else to latch on to. The film’s at its best when focusing on the De Niro/Pacino pairing, granting us the occasional good scene. Or just line — every little helps. But there’s not enough of that and too much of the dross. Other characters come and go with near-random irregularity, subplots are abandoned, or if they were resolved I missed it, and there are so many clichés you wish the DVD came with a spotters’ guide — at least ticking them off would give you something to do.
There are good elements buried here, or at least passable ones. The twist, for example, could work beautifully if it had been executed better. Which is slightly ironic, because one gets the feeling many other choices in the story and direction were dictated by needing to make that reversal work. “Oops.”
Righteous Kill, then, is messy and largely dull, with the odd bit that makes you not totally regret giving it some time. Perhaps with the right team the good parts could’ve been marshalled into something broadly effective. In fact, I’m certain they could be, because there’s proof that at least the premise can work: it’s a TV series called Dexter. Watch that instead, it’s immeasurably better.
Righteous Kill featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2010, which can be read in full here.