September 26, 2008

Two for the Money

FILMS OF THE WEEK RIGHTEOUS KILL (15) Jon Avnet (100 mins) ** STARRING Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Donnie Wahlberg REDBELT(15) David Mamet (99 mins) ** STARRING Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Emily Mortimer

In the police procedural thriller Righteous Kill, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro play what must be the two oldest homicide cops on the beat in New York City. They've been on the force about 30 years apiece, it transpires, though even that would make them pretty long in the tooth when they joined (Pacino is 68, De Niro 65). Do we really buy these two as longtime partners, friends, even "role models" to one another? Well, we don't half try, because the sight of them together on screen is rare enough for us to want it to work. Previously there's only been a five-minute diner scene in Michael Mann's Heat (1995), plus that final chase on foot through the shadowy fields surrounding LAX airport.

Director Jon Avnet probably thought he'd hit the jackpot when he got the pair to sign on for a movie that would keep them side by side. Alas, Righteous Kill is nothing like Heat; it's not even warm. The real wonder is what either actor saw in it, aside perhaps from the virile nicknames that screenwriter Russell Gewirtz has awarded their characters. Pacino is Rooster, De Niro is Turk, and between them they carry in their weathered, careworn features the burden of a lifetime cleaning up New York. The job has finally got to Turk, who a few years back crossed the line by planting evidence on a child-killer after he'd beaten jail on a legal technicality. Thanks to him the killer was put away, justice was served, but the first hairline crack in Turk's granitic integrity was revealed. And Rooster was complicit in the whole scheme.

Now there's a serial killer on the loose, and he's leaving behind clues not just in the identity of his victims - all scumbags of one kind or another - but in scraps of death-haunted poetry found on the corpses. The ghost of Tennyson would not be troubled, but it's giving Turk and Rooster quite a headache. For one thing, their boss has detailed a pair of junior detectives (Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo) to shadow the case, and their investigations lead them to suspect that the killer is someone on the force. "It's a cop, it's a cop, it's a cop," says Leguizamo, one of the few to escape the film with his reputation enhanced. For another, the one cop who seems to have had dealings with all of the victims, including a pederastic priest who gets plugged in his confessional, is Turk.

Gewirtz's screenplay doesn't so much nudge the audience towards the suspect as drag us to his front door in a headlock. De Niro invests some seriously violent tendencies in this guy, a career cop so blinkered and self-righteous he says things like: "Think of me as a street-sweeper" - echoing a more famous urban avenger he played for Scorsese more than 30 years ago. Turk even quotes Dirty Harry as a fitting exemplar, forgetting that even Harry (in Magnum Force) wouldn't stoop to being a vigilante. We are led to believe that his psychological problems have contaminated his personal life, too. He has a relationship with a forensics cop (Carla Gugino) in which their rough sex raises the awful ghost of Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct, only De Niro's too old to be this sadist-lothario and Gugino is too good an actress to deserve such a pathetically slanted role. "He cares about protecting people," says Rooster in his defence, but all we can see is a blustering brute.

It's all we're meant to see, actually, because the movie is premised on a breathtaking switcheroo: that's breathtaking as in "shameless beyond measure" rather than "exciting and well- executed". It's even more annoying in retrospect to trace back its scheme of misdirection. Couldn't the time have been better spent on making the characters more credible? If Wahlberg and Leguizamo had played the two leads rather than Pacino and De Niro, this would be no more than a workaday cop thriller. Instead, it's a rather pompous, disappointing one, and a squandered opportunity to boot.

Quite a week for unfettered machismo, and few directors have indulged themselves so consistently on the theme as David Mamet. You hear it in the way his men - and nearly all his major characters are men - cajole and intimidate one another, even when they're supposed to be friends. Redbelt, his latest, is a curious one, a movie that hints at greatness only to retreat, unpardonably, into genre convention. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mike Terry, a ju-jitsu instructor who runs a lowly training school in Los Angeles. One night, a distraught lawyer (Emily Mortimer) stumbles in and, during an altercation with an off-duty cop, discharges a handgun: no one's hurt, but the accident will reverberate when Mike, desperate for money, helps out a washed-up Hollywood action star (Tim Allen) and finds that no good deed goes unpunished.

A principled guy who conducts all business as a matter of honour, Mike is drawn in to a world of favours and gifts, but no sooner is he welcomed into it than he's suddenly, and chillingly, excluded. The Mamet dialogue is in overdrive: "Let the wheel come around, let the wheel come around", "The first step - to leave the outside outside", "There is no situation you cannot escape from". It's entertaining in its way, so long as you accept that it sounds nothing like what you'd hear from an actual human being. As Mike's problems begin to mount, Redbelt puts a grip on us - and then lets go. Somehow the taut moral drama slackens and we're plunged instead into a sort of high-toned wrestling movie, with Mike doing an On the Waterfront stagger-of-integrity la Brando so as to reclaim his good name. Ejiofor, by the way, is magnificent, almost as good as he was in his breakout role in Dirty Pretty Things some years ago. Heartening to know it wasn't a fluke, but he still can't turn this movie around. Did I say On the Waterfront? Actually, more like The Karate Kid.

Originally published by Reviews by Anthony Quinn.

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