Together Again, And This Time The Big Screen's Large Enough To Hold Them For More Than Five Minutes

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as Detectives Turk and Rooster respectively in Jon Avnet's "Righteous Kill": For the first time ever, both share almost every scene they're in throughout the entire film.  (Photo: Overture Films)

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
September 3, 2008

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.

They're iconic New York actors -- legends through and through -- and they are big fans of each other.  Next week they will share the screen for virtually all of the two hour running time of "Righteous Kill", Jon Avnet's crime drama, which opens in the U.S. and Canada on September 12.  Mr. De Niro and Mr. Pacino, both Oscar winners, appeared on screen together 13 years ago in Michael Mann's Los Angeles cop-criminal drama "Heat" in three scenes lasting a combined total of about nine minutes, on opposite sides of the law.  In Mr. Avnet's new film they work on the same side as rugged veteran New York City police detectives who have seen it all after 30 years on the job.  Their greatest challenge as police partners is to solve an increasingly frustrating serial-killer case that may implicate a member of their own rank-and-file.

"Bob and I get along well -- always have . . . [s]o we have a mutual trust which always helps, says Mr. Pacino in the production notes for "Righteous Kill".  And as if to shore up that statement it was Mr. De Niro who suggested to Mr. Avnet his good friend Mr. Pacino for the new film.

To coin a phrase from a film franchise that both Mr. Pacino and Mr. De Niro were a part of: the offer of Mr. Pacino to play Detective Rooster was an offer that Jon Avnet couldn't refuse.  Furthermore, Mr. Avnet had just directed Mr. Pacino in "88 Minutes", a crime thriller released earlier this year (to overwhelmingly poor critical reviews and viewership) and with the consummate professional Mr. Pacino in the mix, Mr. Avnet was in a no-lose situation.

Both actors appeared in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part II" but did not share screen time.  Mr. De Niro and Mr. Pacino are by trade shy men off screen.  In the mid-1990's during a break in the shooting of Mr. Pacino's film "Chinese Coffee", this writer had managed to say a few words to the actor whose birthplace was the theater.  Back then he afforded a small, but friendly smile as he slowly walked by.  The rules for Mr. De Niro, to those who do not know him, are simple: call him Mr. De Niro at all times.  Not a bad request -- although it's one that's occasionally disregarded by the overzealous segments of the public.  When this writer had occasion to ask Mr. De Niro a question at a Long Island University filmmaking forum held by Spike Lee back in 1993 about whether he planned to direct any stage productions following his film directing debut "A Bronx Tale", he simply replied, "don't know." 

Mr. De Niro did go on and direct "The Good Shepherd", a film which was released in 2006, in which his "GoodFellas" co-star Joe Pesci made an appearance after a few years away from the big screen due to health problems.

Mr. Pacino and Mr. De Niro electrified "Heat" and their performances fit perfectly with Mr. Mann's noirish, cool blue Los Angeles nightscape where the cops and criminals duel for sport and reputation.  As Detective Vincent Hanna, Mr. Pacino was the blowhard-type hothead detective, theatrical yet incisive with his every move and calculation.  As career criminal Neil McCauley, Mr. De Niro was calm, ruthlessly methodical and focused.  With "Righteous Kill" it is Mr. De Niro who is the detective with the short fuse and Mr. Pacino who is the detective with the cooler, more rational head.  Detective Turk (De Niro) and Detective Rooster are like two sides of the same coin.  They walk in lockstep.  They love the badge and the power that comes with it.  They despise the criminals they have to pursue and they are as jaded and cynical as veteran law enforcement types can be.

On opposite sides of crime at the same time: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro during their marquee scene in Michael Mann's "Heat", released in 1995.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com via Warner Brothers)

Over the last few years several film critics and observers have opined that Mr. Pacino and Mr. De Niro along with other veteran American actors like Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman have become parodies of themselves in more recent films.  Just for argument's sake Mr. Pacino may have reached such a fulcrum in "Devil's Advocate" (1997) and oddly enough during the same calendar year Mr. De Niro may have done the same in "Analyze This".  Both films were box office successes and each had a campy comedic feel to them even as they were very different vehicles for the New York titans.

Playing New York City police detectives who have seen it all -- except for the confounding nature of the latest serial-killer murder mystery that dogs them in "Righteous Kill" -- was probably the best thing Overture Films could have hoped for.  Rather than have Mr. De Niro paired with a younger, brash sidekick -- as has been the case in the past for both actors -- Mr. Pacino stepped right in and delivered as Detective Turk's longtime partner.  "If you've known each other as long as we've known each other, you can draw on that background," said Mr. De Niro in the film's production notes.  "And even if it's a subtle sort of imperceptible thing, the comfort level is there because we have known each other so long.  So interesting things kind of emerge."

Curtis Jackson, known to most of the world as 50 Cent, one of the world's most popular rap artists, also stars in "Righteous Kill" and was deeply influenced by the iconic thespians.  "Being in scenes with De Niro and Pacino, I found myself picking up their habits and working like them . . . [i]t felt like they were actually leading me through the scenes," says Mr. Jackson in the film's production notes.  The tough gangster rapper, who has rapped in his songs about how he had been shot nine times in real life growing up in the streets of Queens, New York, admitted that he was nervous, maybe intimidated by his two lead acting colleagues during the production at the time he first met them.  "It was at the table read.  My legs were shaking underneath the table.  They've been in so many movies that I've enjoyed that just being in the same room as them was exciting."

Russell Gewirtz, who crafted the screenplay for Spike Lee's hit film of 2006, "Inside Man", wrote the screenplay for another New York police story, which was filmed mainly in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with select scenes in Queens, Brooklyn and Harlem.  All-in-all, the film's shooting schedule was a mere 36 days -- about 15 days longer than the theatrical U.S.-Canada run of Mr. Avnet's "88 Minutes".

Combined with the extended screen time that Robert De Niro and Al Pacino share, Mr. Avnet can rest assured that "Righteous Kill" will be around in theaters for at least a couple of months.  When you add diverse actors like Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg and Carla Gugino to your cast, Mr. Avnet and audiences could be forgiven for expecting a righteous hit.

"Righteous Kill" opens in the U.S. and Canada on September 12.

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