East Coast, West Coast: Aged Cops, Cracked Up And Beyond Repair

IN New York: Robert De Niro and Al Pacino play seasoned NYPD detectives in "Righteous Kill".  IN Los Angeles: Samuel L. Jackson plays a veteran LAPD officer in "Lakeview Terrace", which opened last Friday. (Photos: Overture Films; Sony Pictures Screen Gems)

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
September 21, 2008

What is it about being at least 50, male and a veteran on a police force that drives some American public servants over the edge?

In the real world of course, most of the 50-plus-year-old above police officers don't behave like the fifty or sixty-somethings that moviegoing Americans and Canadians can now see on the big screen at their local multiplex. 

Let's look at the tale of the corrupt tape: on the east coast of the U.S., New York Police detectives Turk and Rooster, played by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino respectively in the Jon Avnet film "Righteous Kill".  On the west coast, meet Officer Abel Turner of the L.A.P.D., as interpreted by Samuel L. Jackson in Neil LaBute's "Lakeview Terrace".  Both films opened within a week of each other in North America and both feature middle-aged cops gone off the deep end.

In "Righteous Kill" the camaraderie between Turk and Rooster is framed by conventional circumstances.  Suspects are to be considered in a spate of serial killings and some of those include members of New York's Finest.  We get a few red herrings, some titillation and other assorted filler before the surprise conclusion -- regardless of whether audiences find it plausible.  In this New York City (framed mostly in Connecticut) corruption appears to be largely absent.  There's no graft or corruption roiling the ranks for time immemorial as you might expect in a hard-boiled Sidney Lumet thriller like "Prince Of The City" or "Q&A", but at least there's introspection between Mr. De Niro and Mr. Pacino.  Both detectives declare their respect for their jobs and have an ongoing comedy act that sustains their 30-odd-years of partnership.  They have their flaws -- Turk is short-tempered and Rooster is so casual enough at times as to be indifferent -- polar opposites in personality, but beneath the surface (and above it) they are like blood brothers, or more precisely, blue brothers -- covering each others tracks, righting each others' wrongs and delivering an imagined corrective justice where the system fails miserably.

Rarely do we gain glimpses into their personal lives beyond their work -- their work is their life.  We don't know whether they have ever been married or divorced or widowed.  All we do know is they've seen it all before.

By contrast, Abel Turner has never before seen an interracial married couple move in next door to him.  Initially we aren't sure whether he is resentful because the couple is a black woman and a white man (Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson respectively) and thinks they've got some nerve showing up in the suburban Los Angeles neighborhood in which his L.A.P.D. family beat Rodney King as if he were an endangered species on his last legs.  (Mr. King did in fact get severely beaten in the Lakeview Terrace neighborhood back in 1991.)  We aren't sure whether the couple represents a threat to Abel's own moral rectitude.  "Lakeview Terrace" presents its lead protagonist as a menace but when looking deeper into Abel's psyche there is more to see.  He has lost his wife, his kids are distant and he is lonely.  Not that this justifies the treatment he exacts on his liberal-minded new neighbors -- it's just that he has some baggage to work with, even if the film hardly needs to simplify or explain things.  Mr. LaBute has all the ingredients for a good drama -- his husband and wife onscreen team have their faults to be sure -- but he makes the mistake of undervaluing the gravity of the racial and political landscape they inhabit by trivializing it, using code words both overt and otherwise to push the audiences' buttons instead of muddying the waters.

Abel's history as an L.A.P.D. officer is questionable.  He doesn't have the respect of his long-time cohorts on the force.  His patrol partner tenuously has his back and the internal affairs division casts a wary eye over Abel's treatment of the locals he polices.   Abel's work and his conservative politics however, are not the focus of "Lakeview Terrace" -- his own loneliness and despair is.  Abel fights as much with himself as he does his next door neighbors.  Ultimately he is weak -- hiding behind his badge and gun to dispense justice, while he does himself injustice.  Abel seems not to know himself and he's lost in excuses.  Near the end, he says something completely out of whack and barely sensible.  By then, the film has grown to be a bloated question mark.

The criminal profiles of the authority figures in "Righteous Kill" supply the fuel for Turk and Rooster's ammunition: the low lives had it coming, without question.  In their misguided missions at least the "Righteous" cops seek therapy, even if it won't make a difference to they way they run the streets.  They have younger detectives on their tail who will probably take their rank and prestige soon -- straighter moral arrows who are much more by the book than Turk and Rooster ever have been.  The question left begging is whether they both will become as blighted and cynical as their older forebears.

A younger breed of racist: Matt Dillon as LAPD officer John Ryan might be a racist, but he saves Thandie Newton as Christine Thayer, from certain death in "Crash", the Oscar-winning best picture from 2005.  (Photo: Lionsgate)

In both films the lead cops believe they are well-intentioned.  They think that they are doing the societies they police a favor, but perhaps they're only deluding themselves.  The terrain on which they operate may be no country for old sheriffs in the West Texas depicted by the Coen Brothers but these seasoned New York and Los Angeles cops aren't afraid of the real world; they're afraid of themselves and what they've become in the process of fighting crime.

In Hollywood bad-to-the-bone cops sell (whether in action films like "Terminator 2" or in hardened vigilante law types like "Dirty Harry" Callahan) but in "Righteous Kill" and "Lakeview Terrace" the archetype risks being sold out in service of the overall narrative.  Showy moments of glamour exist in both films where Turk and Rooster and their west coast brother Abel seem seduced by the very extravagance that they claim to rail against.  Abel's occupation with his kids' upbringing and his mercurial stance between the shadows of right and wrong are vital to keeping the last vestiges of himself intact.  He probably knows that the Abel of the past has gone forever even though the atmosphere surrounding him hasn't.  Climate-wise, in the film "Crash" the racist L.A.P.D. cop John Ryan, played by Matt Dillon was stronger and more realistic -- more nuanced and less caricatured than Abel -- just like the environment that he operated in.  Mr. Dillon's L.A. racist, a younger cop than Abel -- and white -- played the same way attitudinally in the outside world as he did within the insular world of the Los Angeles PD.  With Abel in "Lakeview", his racial animus exists in the most local sense -- very close to home.  He is self-aware of the racist attitudes on the force though, just like Nick Nolte's racist cop character Mike Brennan was in "Q&A".

Other films with cracked up crooked cops, like "Unlawful Entry" which at least was a surface drama fitting its slasher-like genre, made for more sincere enjoyment, and "Training Day" masterfully showcased the complexities and contradictions of its protagonist.  "Serpico" was based on a true story that worked well for the big screen via Mr. Lumet, and Mr. Pacino was more than up for it as the upstanding whistle-blowing title New York detective.  In both "Righteous" and "Lakeview Terrace" story is sacrificed but both films take themselves more seriously than "Unlawful Entry" did.  "Unlawful" featured a damsel-in-distress played by the now m.i.a. Madeleine Stowe, while both of the current films feature women (played by "Righteous" Carla Gugino and "Lakeview"'s Ms. Washington) who aren't afraid to stand up for themselves and take action, even if their male counterparts push them aside like property or obstacles to be discarded.

While "Righteous Kill" and "Lakeview Terrace" share in common wrongheaded authority figures, not unnoticed is that all of these players -- Mr. De Niro, Mr. Pacino and Mr. Jackson -- have been on this terrain before and on opposing sides, together, in a six degrees of separation kind of way.  In "Sea Of Love" (1989), Mr. Pacino played a reckless New York City detective who early on rounds up a number of suspected citizens on outstanding warrants.  One of the citizens is played by Mr. Jackson.  In 1995 Mr. Pacino and Mr. De Niro were on opposite sides of the law in Michael Mann's classic film "Heat", while just two years later in "Jackie Brown" Mr. Jackson exemplified criminal cool with co-star Mr. De Niro as a drugged-out cohort.  In separate films as cops or other professionals Mr. De Niro had "15 Minutes" to live in 2002, while Mr. Pacino had "88 Minutes" to do the same earlier this year under Mr. Avnet's direction.  Mr. Jackson's big screen law enforcement credentials had preceded him in the films "The Negotiator" (1998) and "Kiss Of Death" (1995).  Over the years Mr. Pacino and Mr. De Niro, two of America's foremost acting titans, have been criticized for mailing in performances and becoming self-parodies in some of their post-1990's films.  Mr. Jackson, now in his fifties, has been also given grief in some critical quarters for becoming predictable in some of his films, and while his performance is more integral to "Lakeview" than the two 60-something New York thespians work is to "Righteous", but in Mr. Avnet's disappointing film if not for their presence they'd be no reason to see it.

Even if Turk, Rooster and Abel Turner are in league, their sense of religion is symbolized in telling glimpses at various points in "Righteous Kill" and "Lakeview Terrace".  The title of Mr. Avnet's film carries an implication, but in "Lakeview" biblical symbolism is carried not only in the lead character's first name but also at one distinct moment in the film.  Both films have their flaws and are hardly memorable, yet they have a decided impact.  These crooked cops have nothing on Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackie character on the FX cable television series "The Shield" and they aren't nearly as thought-provoking a study as then-Larry Fishburne's double-sided cop in the terrific Bill Duke film "Deep Cover", but for now, in September movie land at least, they'll just have to do.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.
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