Film fans have waited decades to see the dream team double act of Righteous Kill. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, longtime friends and Italian-American icons, previously shared only a single grandstanding scene together in Michael Mann's 1995 robbery thriller Heat. But now these hard-knuckled heavyweights finally get to bounce off each other for an entire movie, playing world-weary New York detectives on the trail of a sick serial killer in Jon Avnet's grisly murder mystery.
The Righteous Kill producer Avi Lerner calls the film "an event in world history". Reviewers disagree, lambasting it as a bloated vehicle for two fading stars. "The long-awaited De Niro/Pacino show amounts to nothing so much as a novelty bout, a celebrity sparring session," The Guardian complained. "The pacing is all wrong from the beginning, and the actors do little to escape the caricatures laid out for them in the script," noted the San Francisco Chronicle. The Los Angeles Times called it "tricked-up and often turgid".
Released hard on the heels of Righteous Kill in many territories, Pacino's hammy headline performance in 88 Minutes has earned even worse reviews. This time the 68-year-old star plays an irresistible college professor with a chemical orange tan and strangely elevated hair. Once again, he pursues a brutal serial killer. Once again, Jon Avnet directs. Variety claimed it marks a new low in Pacino's erratic career, noting "every aspect of the film, from the script to the star's haircut, is ludicrous in the extreme".
For most of the 1970s and 1980s, every Pacino and De Niro film was greeted like a method acting masterclass by fans, critics and fellow actors. Once, a shared screen credit would have been deemed a seismic cultural event. In their blazing prime, both actors were synonymous with fierce commitment and brave choices. Working with the leading auteur directors of the new Hollywood - Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Michael Cimino - they starred in such all-time classics as the Godfather trilogy, Mean Streets, Scarface, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter and Raging Bull.
More recently, both stars have worked with heavy hitters including Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. Even in middle age, both remain premiere league players with access to the cream of filmmaking talent. And yet, the Righteous Kill and 88 Minutes producer Avi Lerner built his career on low-grade action vehicles for Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Avnet has directed a few forgettable features and tons of TV dramas. How did the two greatest actors of their generation end up working for such journeyman hacks?
In October 2007, Francis Ford Coppola put his finger on the problem. Interviewed by GQ magazine, the legendary director berated Pacino and De Niro for their waning artistic ambitions, poor quality control and lazy willingness to "live off the fat of the land". "I met both Pacino and De Niro when they were really on the come," Coppola said. "They were young and insecure. Now Pacino is very rich, maybe because he never spends any money. He just puts it in his mattress."
In the early 1970s, Coppola fought studio bosses to cast the unknown Pacino in his career-making breakthrough as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, beating a raft of better-known rivals, including De Niro. The director then rewarded De Niro with his Oscar-winning turn as Marlon Brando's younger self in The Godfather II. But afterwards, Coppola claims, both took the easy route to fame. "I don't feel that kind of passion to do a role and be great coming from those guys," he told GQ.
Coppola later tried to downplay these comments, but he had touched on an uncomfortable truth that has become increasingly obvious to Pacino and De Niro fans. Both stars have slowly evolved into easy-chair riders and raging bores, endlessly taking their audience's brand loyalty for granted with lazy, formulaic star vehicles. Of course, even the most skilled and conscientious actors can not help appearing in a few terrible films. But for the last decade, De Niro and Pacino have outdone each other with turkey after turkey: Showtime, Simone, 15 Minutes, The Recruit, Godsend, Two for the Money, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle - the list goes on, redeemed only slightly by De Niro's lightweight comic mugging in Meet the Parents or Pacino's overblown novelty cameo in Ocean's Thirteen.
In a youth-obsessed movie market, Pacino and De Niro might well defend their recent movie choices by pointing to the dearth of quality leading roles for men in their late 60s. But the autumnal careers of several older actors including Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Hoffman and Michael Caine refute that argument. With the arguable exception of Nicholson, none of these elder statesmen enjoyed the same universal reverence and respect that turned De Niro and Pacino into indestructible screen icons in their 1970s prime. And yet, over the last decade, all of them have embraced their advancing years with dignity and intelligence, turning in strong performances in character roles that reflect their true age.
Frustratingly for movie fans, it is obvious that both stars are not spent forces. Even pedestrian performances in lacklustre B-movies like Righteous Kill and 88 Minutes contain distant echoes of past glory. Both have also made impressive forays behind the camera, notably Pacino's terrific Shakespeare deconstruction Looking For Richard in 1996, and De Niro's overlong but commendably ambitious CIA epic The Good Shepherd in 2006. A potential third-act revival is clearly not beyond either of them. But it would mean making themselves hungry, energised and engaged again.
So how might these former heavyweight champions stage a comeback worthy of Jake LaMotta? Allow me to respectfully suggest a few simple ground rules. First, a ban on playing any more maverick cops or master criminals, however fat the fee. They are hackneyed, overfamiliar and frankly, for men pushing 70, implausible. Likewise, no more on-screen romance with much younger actresses, a queasy feature of both Righteous Kill and 88 Minutes. Older male stars may believe such scenes confirm their virility, but the audience thinks otherwise.
Second, read the script. An obvious point, but clearly a stumbling block for Pacino. This is a man, remember, who turned down plum roles in Apocalypse Now, Star Wars, Kramer vs Kramer, The Usual Suspects, Misery and dozens more. And yet he said yes to Gigli. Need we say more? Third, stop working with seasoned hacks and Hollywood yes-men. Instead, try the Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray route by seeking out younger directors with something fresh to say: Sofia Coppola, Alexander Payne or Wes Anderson. Better still, discover the next Michael Winterbottom, Jane Campion or Spike Jonze and engineer a collaboration. This may mean taking a pay cut, but it could also repay priceless dividends in credibility and awards.
There is some hopeful news here, at least for De Niro devotees. More than a decade after their last collaboration, Casino, it seems the 65-year-old New Yorker is finally set to reunite with his directing mentor Martin Scorsese on the mafia thriller I Heard You Paint Houses. Yes, it's another mob story, but with the unbeatable pedigree of the team behind Goodfellas and Raging Bull. After all those years living off the fat of the land, that sounds like a screen act film fans might genuinely want to see. Finally, an offer we can't refuse.