Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Righteous Kill: Grade D

Righteous Kill (2008)
Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino. Director Jon Avnet.

“Camera suspense” is the dishonest technique of restricting the camera’s scope so the viewer cannot tell what is going on. Typically, there will be a tight shot on a person’s face, but we are not allowed to see what that person sees. Or the camera shows the actor’s feet walking along a sidewalk but no surroundings, and we’re not even sure which character it is. These, and similar techniques are designed to add suspense to a scene that does not have any. Camera suspense is a crude attempt to cover up bad writing or bad directing, or both. This film is entirely based on camera suspense.

A second structural deception is the “And then I woke up” gambit. That’s the way ninth-graders end stories they have started but cannot resolve. This movie doesn’t use that technique literally, but it inserts arbitrary writer’s tricks to end a story, and those tricks inevitably invalidate much of what has gone before, making them a slap in the face of the viewer. Like camera suspense, it is deeply dishonest, a cheap cover-up for poor writing.

DeNiro and Pacino are NYPD homicide detectives after a serial killer. There is suspicion in the department that the killer might be a cop. In the end, the killer does not shoot a victim dead enough, he identifies his assailant from his hospital bed, and the killer is caught, but it’s not who you think, because of the dishonest writing that just jerks the story to a close, so who cares.

The dialog is terrible, full of clichés, platitudes, lame smart remarks, and statements of the obvious. The story reeks of racism and sexism. Granted, it is a cop movie, but it does not skillfully use racism and sexism as story telling devices. Rather it is just an unself-conscious racist and sexist movie. It could have been made in the 60’s.

The acting is uniformly abominable. The characters are not developed nor crafted by the actors. DeNiro gives about 5 minutes of acting and I saw about one minute from Pacino. Otherwise they were asleep throughout. These two mega-stars could have saved this movie with the right director, but my hunch is that all the filmmakers were so star-struck that they forgot they needed to tell a story. Redeeming virtue? DeNiro and Pacino. They really do have charisma, even when they are sleepwalking.

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