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Righteous Kill (2008) -vs- Heat (1995)

Mark Sanchez, Featured WriterThe Smackdown

We’ve seen plenty of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino over the years, although not on the same screen for nearly 13 years until the weekend release of “Righteous Kill.” Was it worth the wait?

They’ve won Oscars, lit up the screen since the 1960s and also appeared in films unworthy of their talent. There is no explanation for “Gigli” or “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” that doesn’t erode popular regard for work that includes “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” and “The Godfather” trilogy. Both appeared in “Godfather II” but not together.

“Righteous Kill” is a reunion of sorts. Pacino/De Niro were the cat and mouse in Michael Mann’s well-received 1995 crime drama, “Heat.” That film figures into the buzz surrounding “Righteous Kill” for those who remember, or care, that De Niro and Pacino ever played off one another.

Here’s the Smackdown!: Is “Righteous Kill” still vintage De Niro/Pacino or has the wine turned to vinegar?

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The Challenger

“Righteous Kill” builds from a simple premise: A serial vigilante is knocking off creeps in New York City. The killer routinely leaves behind a handwritten rhyming note along with a murder weapon. The case falls to 30 year veteran detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino). The cops are ambivalent: “Nothing wrong with a little shooting, as long as the right people get shot,” Turk observes. The body count keeps rising and it’s becoming clear the killer knows enough to thwart police procedure. Inference builds on inference and word at the station house says the killer may be a cop, perhaps one of the detectives. Turk’s girlfriend Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino) is a crime scene investigator with growing concerns about the identity of the “poetic” killer. Events reach a critical point when one of the killer’s intended victims survives a shooting and Karen is brutally attacked. Turk and Rooster get in their licks. Writer Russell Gerwitz leaves enough red herrings to keep the killer’s identity mildly uncertain until the end.

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The Champion

More than anything, “Heat” shows the lives of the criminal and the cop to be similar and distressing. Writer/Director Michael Mann goes several levels deep. Neil McCauley (De Niro) is a robber with an eye for details. He plans every heist with military precision; his talented crew knows the drill. McCauley succeeds because he’s eliminated distractions like a personal life. His crew all have trouble at home. It’s prompted McCauley to adopt the creed that he’ll abandon everything in 30 seconds flat if he feels the “heat” around the corner. He’ll eventually test that notion. LAPD Detective Vincent Hanna (Pacino) lives on the other side of the thin blue line. His obsession with catching crooks turned his personal life into broken pieces. Betrayal and revenge throw McCauley and Hanna on a collision course: They meet in a coffee shop and assure each other they won’t back off. Neither does. They meet a second, lethal, time along the edge of a runway at LAX.

The Scorecard

Both films stage the action effectively and provide a strong sense of place. “Righteous Kill” manages a straightforward story and Director Jon Avnet uses the small cast well, with one exception. Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are credible police detectives and so is Brian Dennehy as their boss. It’s Carla Gugino’s character that doesn’t scan right. In real life she is 30 years younger than Robert De Niro; Within the movie they are not  believable couple. De Niro’s days as a leading man are long gone. By contrast, he and Pacino seem very comfortable with each other much like
an older married couple.

If anything, “Heat” does more with a larger cast. This multi-level story has strong contributors at every point: Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Amy Brenneman, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Dennis Haysbert and Natalie Portman draw a textured picture of lives affected on both sides of the law. As part of an ensemble, Pacino and De Niro fill the screen with authority and ease. They are a delight to watch and so is Michael Mann’s highly stylized visual look. Audiences apparently agree: “Heat” did $187 million in worldwide box office. There’s even a video game version of the film coming out next year.

Two good outings from a pair of film favorites. Is there enough to choose between De Niro/Pacino now and then? Yes.

The Decision

It’s tempting — but wrong — to dismiss “Righteous Kill” because time has caught up with its male leads. De Niro and Pacino are older and a bit lumpier (aren’t we all?) and that’s modified their choice of material. They’re good in this movie. Pacino has thankfully cut back on those verbal whoops introduced into many of his later performances.

It’s not enough. “Heat” tackles a more complex story and offers a better feel for the obsessions that squeeze out the human dimension. Pacino and De Niro give restrained, riveting performances and the production has the overall look that defines Michael Mann’s distinctive visual approach.

We may never see enough of De Niro and Pacino acting together. Their good work is more satisfying in a better movie, like our winner, “Heat.”

About Mark Sanchez 81 Articles
Oregon based media and communications consultant Mark Sanchez is on the fifth or sixth step of his recovery program from his career as a television news reporter. And that’s the way it is. Mark has been an Oregonian since the Reagan administration and shows no signs of leaving. He lives in Portland — a city that is famous for its transit system, its rain, its independent film community and, lately, for the TV series Portlandia, which Mark notes is about half-true, but to protect confidential sources he won’t say which half.

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