Righteous Kill is a movie built around a plot device. That wouldn’t be a bad thing in itself, except for the fact that as the film’s moves into its third act, the revealed motive for the plot device makes absolutely no sense in the context of the film itself. Be warned, the problems with the film may require more than a few small spoilers.
An opening burst of static dissolves to reveal Robert De Niro in a grainy black and white video confessing to killing 14 people over the last several years while serving as a police detective. This confessional video will become the spine of the movie, as we follow De Niro’s character Turk and his long-time partner Rooster (Al Pacino) and their investigation in to a series of murders where the victims were criminals who managed to evade going to jail on various legal technicalities. They are joined by two detectives from another precinct (John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg), who begin to suspect that the killer they are searching for my be a fellow police officer.
Although the script was written for De Niro and Pacino, this isn’t the best material either of them has had to work with. Pacino plays his part breezily, more interested in the quips his character makes than in any of the dramatic meat the role may offer. His performance does not indicate that he feels he is completely above the material present, but that he is there just to have some fun working opposite De Niro. De Niro, for his own part, seems to be enjoying his scenes with Pacino as well. It is also nice to see the actor back working in a dramatic role rather than playing yet another character that comedically played off of his tough guy image.
The real problem is the confession video that forms the narrative device that the film hangs on. While it seems like an interesting way to set up the story, the fact that the screenplay never logically follows through on the concept it is a sure tipoff for audiences that something is definitely amiss. If De Niro’s character is indeed the killer, why is he never seen in the scenes where the various criminals meet their demise? And while Turk is shown as being frustrated with his job and with the legal system that sometimes allows the bad guys back out on to the streets, the film never portrays these frustrations as strong enough to lead him to the course of action the film would like us to believe he has embarked upon. The film practically screams at us that there is another killer and his ultimate revelation comes as no surprise at all.
With the revelation of the real murderer comes the reason why De Niro’s character is recording the confessional video. Unfortunately, the reason he is doing it does not make much sense in the context of the story itself. It seems as if the only real reason for the recording of the video is to give the movie a storytelling device.
That the script plays fast and loose with its premise is disappointing as it comes from writer Russell Gerwitz, whose last thriller, 2006‘s The Inside Man, was such a smartly and cleverly constructed film. Unfortunately, this screenplay begins to fall apart when one starts thinking about the premise too closely. The onscreen charisma and chemistry Pacino can only carry Righteous Kill so far, and are not enough to prevent it from stumbling and falling flat in the home stretch.