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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Righteous Kill would seem, on the surface, to be the movie a lot of people have been waiting for. Although stars Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino were both in The Godfather Part II, they shared no scenes together. They did electrically occupy the same space in Heat, but only for about seven minutes. Now they team up for the entire duration of a movie - a cop thriller no less. It should be cinematic heaven, but why are all those horned creatures with pitchforks roaming around?

DeNiro and Pacino play two veteran NYC detectives named, respectively, Turk and Rooster. They are trying to track down a serial killer whose victims are all guilty-as-hell scumbags who have somehow managed acquittal. Someone is offing them, then leaving little poems at the scene of the crimes. I don't want to give anything away, but it becomes clear very early on that the story isn't playing fair with us. The movie's framework has Turk confessing a series of murders to a video camera, yet when we see those murders playing out in flashback, the camera goes to great lengths to avoid showing us who is committing them. Therefore, it's possible that Turk could really be the killer, or someone else could be.

Two fellow detectives - Riley (Donnie Wahlberg) and Perez (John Leguizamo) - certainly think Turk is the culprit. He has a personal connection to all the victims, and he also enjoys rough sex with fellow cop Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino). The key to figuring it all out may rest with a local drug dealer/nightclub owner/music producer named Spider (played by Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent in a dull performance that isn't 1/100th as menacing as his own CD covers). Turk and Rooster try to identify the killer, as do Riley and Perez, as does Corelli. If Turk does turn out to be guilty, it creates different repercussions for all of them.

When I was a child, my father had a sign hanging in the basement that featured an old Irish saying: If You Can't Dazzle Them With Brilliance, Baffle Them With Bullshit. That seems to be the sentiment by which Righteous Kill lives. The film obviously wants to be a twist-filled mystery that will, as the cliché goes, have you guessing until the last second. That could work, with the proper structure. However, the screenplay by Inside Man's Russell Gerwitz doesn't seem to know how to pay that off - or at least not in the hands of director Jon Avnet (88 Minutes, Fried Green Tomatoes). A good procedural works when we are able to follow the clues right along with the characters. There's a very strict sense of internal logic that absolutely has to be there. Righteous Kill doesn't have it. The plot constantly chases its own tail, jumping abruptly from one thing to another until the audience is confused. At times, it's incredibly difficult to tell how certain characters know certain things, or how they end up in particular places, or how they assemble pieces of the mystery. The approach of the story reminds me of a pinball machine, with the ball flying wildly and haphazardly from one thing to the next. There's no brilliance here, just a bunch of baffling…well, you know.

What's needed here is a filmmaker who can corral all the ideas into something with a crisp pace and a logical flow. The thing that shocked me most was how the movie felt like some cheap-o straight-to-DVD thriller. The production values - from cinematography to editing to musical score - are little more than adequate. Everything needed to be slowed down, presented more artistically, and explained more clearly.

If there's anything that marginally redeems Righteous Kill, it's the pairing of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. This does not represent the best work from either of them. Pacino overacts, as seems to be the norm for him these days. DeNiro is best when he has a challenging character to play - a Jake LaMotta, a Travis Bickle. When he doesn't, he often appears…not bored, exactly, but unstimulated. Certainly Turk cannot hold a candle to those other characters. Nevertheless, it's a kick to see these two paired onscreen. If nothing else, they appear to be enjoying the chance to share more screen time than they did in Heat. (It must be said, however, that this movie is the anti-Heat, and Jon Avnet is no Michael Mann.)

People are going to expect a lot more from the DeNiro/Pacino match-up than Righteous Kill can ever hope to give. Putting these two actors in a film whose theme is vigilante justice promises something hard-hitting and maybe even unforgettable. In this case, the theme is introduced but never meaningfully explored, and the plot resolves itself with a ludicrous finale that contains what may be the least surprising surprise in movie history. The longer Righteous Kill went on, the more I disliked it.

( 1/2 out of four)

Righteous Kill is rated R for violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

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