One of the smartest career moves Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman ever made was never to team up again after “Casablanca.” If Warner Bros. had shoved them together again in some unworthy vehicle — “Confidential Agent,” for instance — it would have tarnished the perfection of their early pairing.
Granted, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are no Bogart and Bergman — and “Heat” is no “Casablanca” — but anyone who ever wanted to see these two one-time powerhouses once again play opposite each other on the big screen will have that desire quashed by “Righteous Kill,” a distressingly generic cops-versus-serial-killer thriller that will soon be appearing in dictionaries everywhere in the entry marked “wasted opportunity.”
It’s not that “Righteous Kill” is despicably awful — and heck, compared to “88 Minutes,” Pacino’s previous collaboration with director Jon Avnet, it’s a work of art — but the movie is so dreadfully by-the-numbers and predictable that comparing it to a TV cop show would be an insult to TV cop shows.
Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) are longtime partners on the NYPD. They’ve always followed the rules, until a child-killer goes free because of the testimony of his girlfriend (Melissa Leo, criminally underutilized in a small cameo). Turk plants a gun in the killer’s house, and the creep winds up going to jail for a crime he actually didn’t commit. Soon thereafter, a parade of scumbags starts getting killed one by one, with the assailant leaving behind the murder weapon and a short poem explaining why the miscreant deserved to die.
Joining Turk and Rooster in investigating the case are two (relatively) young officers on the force played by John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg, and the prevailing theory suggests that a cop is the assailant. Sharp-shooter Turk is narrating the story and giving us lots of information about the murders, but is he really guilty? I won’t give away the movie’s one big slam-bang twist, but most viewers will figure it out before their popcorn is half-eaten.
Oh, there’s one more cop of note here — Carla Gugino gets stuck in the thankless role of a detective who likes it when fellow officer Turk manhandles her in the sack (or, more accurately, on the floor). The role is a watered-down and even more sexist variation on the rough-sex enthusiast played by Jeanne Tripplehorn in “Basic Instinct,” and it’s one of this year’s most embarrassingly sexist creations.
Not that we should expect enlightenment from a movie that’s so clearly cobbled together from every policier you’ve ever seen. From De Niro’s estranged relationship with his daughter to the younger cops’ aggressive scrappiness, everything in the movie has the pall of familiarity about it.
What “Righteous Kill” does have going for it is momentum; it may be an uninspired retread, but I was certainly never bored. And while De Niro and Pacino may be ridiculously overqualified for the material, they at least seem to be enjoying themselves while verbally sparring with each other, their fellow cops and the bad guys. (Curtis Jackson, the artist still known as 50 Cent, actually manages to hold his own in this company, playing a shady Harlem nightclub impresario.)
Driving out to a theater to see “Righteous Kill” would probably require more effort than any of its makers put into producing it. But if you stumble upon in on TV late one night, you might find yourself entertained, even as you wonder why its two stars agreed to be in it.