There was a time when young men became actors because of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
Pacino was the frenetic Bobby in “The Panic in Needle Park,” the combustible Teach on stage in “American Buffalo,” and the darkly iconic Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.” Thespians are encouraged to work without a net, but for Pacino it came naturally; no urging required. New York actors copied his moves, his mannerisms, his speech patterns, his guts; actors elsewhere copied the New York actors who copied Pacino.
De Niro was Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s searing “Mean Streets” in 1973, which made him an idol to every male actor with attitude and anger. The role set him off on a staggering slew of prestige performances, many under the aegis of Scorsese, who quickly evolved into one of cinema’s giants himself.
If only the two superstar actors had used their powers for good instead of … well, not evil exactly, but the root of all evil. In recent years, the glow of their magnificent earlier work has dimmed after a series of wince-inducing projects that made longtime admirers run out and buy extra DVD copies of “Serpico” and “Taxi Driver” as a precaution, just in case their other copies got lost or stolen.
This week, the two Italian titans of modern American acting reunite for “Righteous Kill,” only the second film in which they have appeared together onscreen. They met in one brief scene over coffee at Kate Mantilini in L.A. in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime thriller, “Heat.” And, of course, while Pacino played Michael, De Niro was a young Vito Corleone in “The Godfather, Part II,” but the two were never filmed together.
“Righteous Kill” is selling itself as a buddy movie with old buddies. Directed by Jon Avnet, it’s about two veteran detectives who think a recent murder might be connected to an old case they worked on years ago. It is a pivotal release in the careers of both actors, not commercially but in terms of their respective reputations. It could either remind moviegoers of the power of their immense talents, or it could serve as sad evidence of squandered years in the business eschewing art for commerce.
Where did Al go wrong?
For Pacino, it seems the trouble all began way back in 1992 with “Scent of a Woman,” which is ironic, because he received a best actor Oscar for his role as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, a blind veteran who is prepared to end it all after one last fling. Chris O’Donnell plays the young caretaker who throws a wrench into Frank’s plans.
While some loved Pacino’s turn as a cantankerous coot, the portrayal was ridiculed by others as too Foghorn Leghorn-esque. Between 1973 and ’93, Pacino received eight Academy Award nominations; after taking the hardware for “Scent,” he hasn’t received another nomination.
Not all of Pacino’s work since then has been roundly dismissed. He was lauded for “Carlito’s Way” (in 1993), “Heat” and “Insomnia” (2002), and was as stirring as he has ever been in “Donnie Brasco” (1997) and “The Insider” (1999), and as Roy Cohn in the HBO miniseries adaptation of “Angels in America.”
But there were more eyesores than beauties, including “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997), “S1mOne” and “People I Know” (2002), “The Recruit” and “Gigli” (2003), “Two for the Money” (2005), and the film for which he received arguably the worst reviews of his storied career, “88 Minutes” (2007, also directed by Avnet).
Nicolas Cage is often savaged over his choice of projects, opting for the paycheck over the prestige. But it can probably be safely argued that, in terms of a career legacy, Pacino has a lot more to lose.
And De Niro may have outdone Pacino.
Destroying his legacy?De Niro has won two Academy Awards — for his supporting role as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather, Part II” in 1975, and in 1981 for playing Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull,” which endeared him to Method actors everywhere when he packed on 60 pounds for the role. In all, he has been nominated six times, but hasn’t been so honored since 1992 for “Cape Fear.”
Like Pacino, not all of De Niro’s films have been stinkers. Some of the more notable outings since his last Oscar include “Casino” and “Heat” (1995), “Wag The Dog” (1997) and “Ronin” (1998). But he has had a skein of image-peelers lately. In fact, cinema archeologists looking for his “jump the shark” moment might go all the way back to 1996 and “The Fan,” an ill-conceived sports thriller that co-starred Wesley Snipes.
In recent years, De Niro’s miscalculations include “The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle” (2000), “15 Minutes” and “The Score” (2001), “Showtime” and “City by the Sea” (2002), and the god-awful “Godsend” (2004). Even his successful forays into comedy — “Analyze This” (1999) and “Meet the Parents” (2000) — were negated by insipid sequels “Analyze That” (2002) and “Meet the Fockers” (2004).
It seems curious that Pacino and De Niro would come barreling down the fast track to avoid oblivion with something like “Righteous Kill,” which has generated little buzz as awards season begins and has no particularly sparkling pedigree. It might have made more sense for both to work with Scorsese or Ridley Scott or Michael Mann again or any number of other “A” list directors who could add luster to their names. Avnet’s major claims to fame are as helmer of 1991’s “Fried Green Tomatoes” and of the failed Robert Redford-Michelle Pfeiffer romance, “Up Close & Personal” in ’96.
Oh, well. Presumably, Netflix still has plenty of copies of “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Goodfellas.”