Marlon Brando may be best remembered for his tour-de-force performances in such classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, The Fugitive Kind and, much later, The Godfather. Many others, however, also recall a remark he once made when looking back at his entire body of work: "There were some stinkers." Bad movies with talented actors are always mystifying. If the script was bad to begin with, couldn't they have seen? Or, at least, upon reflection? And if their performances are lacking, couldn't the director have done his job and put them on track?
This little rumination comes courtesy of the DVD release of Righteous Kill, the first film to pair the monumentally talented Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, as main characters. Both actors starred in The Godfather II, but in different time periods and in Michael Mann's Heat, where they met up for only a couple of scenes. But, in the words of the greatest Italian-American actor ever, this one is a stinker.
DeNiro and Pacino play ageing New York cops who have been partners for decades and are now on the trail of an apparent serial killer who might be connected to a case they closed years ago. Ageing or not, De Niro has a young girlfriend played by Carla Gugino who works as a crime-scene inspector and does all kinds of grisly things to the bodies of murder victims. Their relationship behind closed doors has some rather odd aspects to it, which enhance suspicion of De Niro as the killer. It's an enhancement that's not really needed, however, since he is seen intermittently from the early minutes of the film in a black-and-white video confessing to and explaining the motives for all of the murders the partners investigate.
In the film's first act, viewers could be excused for expecting a thriller doubling as a psychological investigation of a cop who finds in his role a justification for murdering people who have already got away with murder themselves. That could make for an intriguing ride, not to mention utilising the acting talent at hand. But just as there are hints that the movie might be going somewhere interesting and possibly unique, it veers into mediocrity. It becomes just another cop movie with a couple of twists that you might or might not see coming. Even if it does hold a surprise or two, it offers little in the way of entertainment - the pacing is off and the characters are not very likeable - and absolutely nothing in the way of insight.
If it weren't for De Niro and Pacino, Righteous Kill would be consigned to the cop genre bargain bin without a second thought. But these two men, with three Oscars and numerous other awards between them, attract more than box-office receipts for a film like this: they attract serious critical attention, the vast majority of which has been dismal. So what were they thinking? Clearly, both men should be beyond such material like this. Pacino won an Emmy in 2004 for his stunning portrayal of the Aids-afflicted Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy's former sidekick, in Angels in America. Prior to that he was uncomfortably convincing in Insomnia and great in The Merchant of Venice. De Niro in recent years has made some wonderful comic turns while quite capably showing his serious side in The Good Shepherd in 2006.
So it isn't as if they have lost their touch. What they may have lost, however, is the need to be challenged. Righteous Kill is a film that allows both men to go through the motions and pick up a cheque for the tidy sum of $15 million (Dh55m). Nice work if you can get it, but second-rate performances in third-rate movies don't say much for artistic integrity.