De Niro. Pacino. Actors needing no introduction or even first names.
What they've needed — and generations of fans hoped for — is an on-screen teaming in roles deserving their talent. The crime drama Righteous Kill does the trick, at least better than 1995's Heat that kept them apart except for one scene that looked suspiciously as if many of their lines were filmed separately.
Righteous Kill isn't in the same league as Raging Bull, Dog Day Afternoon or any other classics these two electrified on their own. It's a standard cop flick with the usual mechanics: old pros, younger turks, a cranky captain and assorted society flotsam floating around sensational murders.
What Righteous Kill also features is De Niro and Pacino obviously relishing the opportunity to go glare-to-glare with each other, or anyone feeling frisky enough to interrupt. Neither has appeared so energized in quite a while, or — especially in Pacino's case — so hesitant to chomp scenery. What viewers witness is long overdue acting magic.
De Niro plays Turk, a detective with anger issues that erupt in interrogations and sexual bouts with a forensics investigator (Carla Gugino). Pacino is Rooster, Turk's partner whose admiring defense of his friend is stretched to the limit. Turk is ticked about criminals caught red-handed but set free by technicalities. Rooster agrees, and in a weak moment assisted Turk with tainting evidence to put away a killer.
Turk may be taking his vendetta too far. A string of acquitted bad guys are showing up dead, with taunting rhymes left at the crime scene. Evidence gradually leads them to believe a police officer is responsible. The screenplay by Russell Gewirtz (Inside Man) is fairly transparent but be expected to change your own solution to the case at least once.
Director Jon Avnet (who showed how Pacino shouldn't be handled in 88 Minutes) does an unremarkable job of laying out the dirty details. Righteous Kill would probably head straight to home video, if not for the legends who signed on. Yet Pacino and De Niro aren't just cashing paychecks. They perform with something to prove, and doing it casually is part of that proof.
Sure, some scenes exist only to showcase Pacino's pop-eyed fervor, and De Niro's narration sounds like Travis Bickle with a badge. But anyone who felt cheated by Heat or disappointed by where their careers have headed can savor a pulpish clash of acting titans.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com