Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman gives moviegoers what they’ve always wanted: Robert De Niro and Al Pacino side-by-side for the first time. At least, that would be the case if facts didn’t get in the way.
The Godfather: Part II (1974) does, technically, star both men, but they are in different timelines and don’t share a scene. De Niro plays the younger version of Pacino’s papa, who grows to become Marlon Brando. Heat (1995) sold itself as a “clash of the titans” to amp up the film’s already epic scope. De Niro and Pacino on opposite sides of the law, engaging each other in an existential chess match and finally locking horns in an explosive finish. While the characters occupy space in the minds of one another, they only face off in that one scene in the diner. Michael Mann knew to always leave the audience wanting more.
Now, The Irishman gives us boundless screen time of the two great New Yawkers sinking their teeth into meaty scene work. With the greatest of directors at the helm. At long last. At. Long. Last.
Uhh, excuse me: Does no one remember a little picture called Righteous Kill?
The year was 2008 and Starz, LLC had recently created a theatrical distribution company called Overture Films. Don’t look for it now as it no longer exists, due, in no small part, for wasting a fortune on absolute dreck like Righteous Kill.
The Overture method was to take the dullest and least thought-provoking scripts, align them with hack directors, and then wave a boatload of money at universally known performers to get them to sign up. Who can forget Dustin Hoffman in Last Chance Harvey? Or the Diane Keaton/Queen Latifah/Katie Holmes vehicle Mad Money? The answer: everyone.
Righteous Kill was one of Overture’s early projects. Co-starring 50 Cent, Donnie Wahlberg, John Leguizamo, Carla Gugino, Brian Dennehy, and pro-skater Rob Dyrdek, the names above the title were De Niro and Pacino. Two legends playing cops — it was a combination to delight both cinephiles and dads who go to the movies once a year. Early trade announcements pegged the crime drama as an adaptation of a highly regarded French film (36 Quai des Orfèvres), but this seems to either have been a mistake, or the end product was so different lawyers arbitrated the connection away. There is no mention of it in the credits and looking at the synopsis of the “original,” I don’t see much similarity. This, to me, suggests that this was a “get the cast first, worry about the story second” type of movie.
The film was directed by Jon Avnet, who had a hit in 1991 with Fried Green Tomatoes. After that, his resume gets dodgy. A year before Righteous Kill he directed Pacino in 88 Minutes, one of the worst things the Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA-winning actor had ever starred in. That is, until, Righteous Kill.
Financed and produced by Millennium/Nu Image, the production outfit currently dumping Rambo and Hellboy revamps into multiplexes, Righteous Kill boasts an 18% percent on ye olde Rotten Tomatoes. The pull quotes from different “fresh” reviews include phrases like “despite major reservations,” “has been done before,” “isn’t anything to write home about” and references to Grampa Simpson. Reminder: these are the positive reviews!
Is it really that bad?
The opening sequence of Righteous Kill should be studied by scientists for its ability to provide more cringe-per-capita than any other cinematic product of our age. A choppy montage (spliced together from what appears to be scenes from later in the movie that didn’t make the cut) finds two well-past-retirement cops gritting their teeth and mugging during shooting practice. “Two between the eyes!” these once-great thespians blurt at one another, as cheesy electric guitars shred all over the soundtrack. It’s like the Doof Warrior is somewhere in the next room while these two old guys, in grey sweats, lift weights.
After this disorienting intro, we begin with De Niro on some sort of confessional video, confessing that he’s gone from detective to vigilante. When the scum on the streets beat the system, he hunts them down and blows them away. It began quietly, with planting evidence, but evolved to multiple homicides. Pacino, his partner, appears to be covering for him, especially when two other cops (Leguizamo and Wahlberg) join to help “find” the killer. (Because the killer leaves poems behind. Real smart.)
I got in the business of writing about movies because I am easily captured in their thrall. As such, I never can see a twist coming or guess an ending. The point is, I saw the big switcheroo in Righteous Kill coming a mile away. And if I saw it coming, I can only imagine how viewers like my wife, a genuine movie-twist Poirot, thought of it.
The movie features flashbacks of stylized murders, gobs of voice-over, shots of a chief (Dennehy) dressing down our heroes and some queasy moments on the edge of offensiveness. Referring to someone as an “African-American junkie whore” is, uh, weird. The movie builds to a big revelation and a chase scene that’s shot in such a way that these older gents don’t have to run too much. It all looks so cheap.
Apart from the rote plot, though, there’s just an overall grossness to the film. Carla Gugino, nearly thirty years De Niro’s junior, is his girlfriend; a fellow cop whose sole character trait is that she likes it rough. As such, we are treated to shots of old man De Niro giving her the time (mostly audio, thankfully) then later complaining to Pacino that “she’s got my sperm level so low I’ve got to sit down to take a piss.” I’ve dealt with male plumbing equipment for my entire life and I just want to state for the record I have no idea what in the hell that’s supposed to mean.
There’s a lot else that stinks about this movie. To catalogue it all feels a bit like punching down. A line like “is it killing time? Or is he just killing time?” is just so bad you need to respect it.
Avnet, thrilled with his “get” of the two stars, boasted that the casting was an event in world history. Party coverage of the post-premiere shindig at New York’s Terminal 5 (an enormous concert venue) mentions that both Pacino and De Niro quickly bailed, leaving reporters to deal with Chevy Chase and Mickey Rourke.
Around this time in 2008, the public had to face facts: The involvement of either of these legendary actors in a film, especially De Niro’s, was now a sign that the movie should probably be avoided. Yes, De Niro had The Silver Lining’s Playbook in 2012, but there was also Everybody’s Fine, Stone, Little Fockers, Killer Elite, Red Lights, The Family, Grudge Match (oh, Lord, Grudge Match), Last Vegas, Hands of Stone … all this dross leading up to Dirty Grandpa.
Pacino was less busy, and gave us Danny Collins in 2015, which ruled, but there were plenty of whiffs like Manglehorn and The Humbling, and his truly awful filmed play of Salomé. (There’s a case to be made for Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill, in which Pacino performs a musical number about Dunkin’ Donuts “Dunkaccinos,” being so bad that it’s actually good, but that’s for another time.)
To get to heaven, one must go through hell, and that’s Righteous Kill, an absolute nadir for two greats. Luckily, a righteous man was in the wings. Martin Scorsese and Pacino have known one another for decades, though had never worked together. The Irishman marks collaboration number nine for he and De Niro. While the movie is only coming out now, development with this cast began in 2008, right as Righteous Kill was bumming everyone out. We should all have friends like Martin Scorsese.
The third act of The Irishman, which hits theaters on Nov. 1 before arriving to Netflix on Nov. 29, argues that everyone – even the hardened killers – will eventually reevaluate their deeds. We can’t lie about the past. We must confront it if we want to be saved. So there’s no lying about Righteous Kill. But with acknowledgment, we may just meet our eternal reward. The Irishman is big, brave and good enough to be Righteous Kill’s redemption.
Righteous Kill is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Correction (Oct. 31): A previous version of this story indicated that the Richard Gere film Brooklyn’s Finest was produced by Overture. The film was only distributed by the company. We’ve edited the article to remove mention of the film.