Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. There are at least 13 ways of looking at these blackbirds.
They are, indelibly, the young Vito Corleone and Michael Corleone, the seasoned faces of American conflict and compromise and the most authoritative actors of their generation. If there were a Mount Rushmore of actors, surely their profiles would be chiseled in granite next to those of Marlon Brando and Jimmy Stewart.
Is it possible that Righteous Kill is only the third time De Niro and Pacino have shared a movie marquee and only the second they have shared scenes? They were both in The Godfather, Part II, though not at the same time, and both in Heat, where De Niro was the unhurried criminal and Pacino the harried cop on his tail.
Unlike Heat, there is no clash of the titans in Righteous Kill, a twisty, turny and ultimately silly thriller from Inside Man's Russell Gewirtz. The actors play veteran NYPD cops and longtime partners - who may be criminals.
To the brass in the precinct, Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) are the Righteous Brothers, go-to guys for uncrackable cases. Like the one of an apparent serial killer, a vigilante targeting accused pedophiles who got exonerated for lack of evidence. Because the murderer leaves doggerel at the murder site, he is dubbed "the poetry killer."
But to the young turks in the department, the old turks are "like Lennon and McCartney," a team so tight that there must be some friction. Something's eating Turk, a man of action. Something's too easy about Rooster, a man of talk.
In director Jon Avnet's frenetically edited closeups, Turk goes about his business. He outhustles a drug kingpin named Spider (50 Cent in a small but memorable role). He enjoys a rough quickie with crime-scene investigator Karen (Carla Gugino, criminally beautiful - and criminally underutilized). Essentially, Rooster's role is to crow and cast suspicion on his partner.
For most moviegoers, the film's chief appeal is as a showcase for De Niro's minimalist behavior and Pacino's maximalist performance.
De Niro, whose creased face increasingly resembles that of a spud with a very large mole, recedes so deeply into Turk's troubled character that he fails to engage the audience. For this broadly directed entertainment, his acting is admirably subtle, perhaps too much so.
Pacino, whose black olive eyes dance above a satanic smile, is De Niro's opposite, his dervish energy enlivening this frequently tedious affair. While De Niro telegraphs his mood, Pacino, that unapologetic showman, semaphores it. His performance should come with the caption: It's Easter. Enjoy the ham.
Righteous Kill ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Jon Avnet. With Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Carla Gugino, Brian Dennehy and John Leguizamo.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, sexuality, drugs, profanity)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey