Righteous Kill (2008) Review
Righteous Kill was directed by Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes, Pleading Guilty), written by Russell Gewirtz (Inside Man, Blind Justice), and stars Robert De Niro (Savage Salvation, Heist), Al Pacino (Paterno, Any Given Sunday), John Leguizamo (John Wick, Violent Night), Donnie Wahlberg (Blue Bloods, Band of Brothers), Carla Gugino (Even Money, The Space Between Us), Alan Blumenfeld (Pathology, Fallout 4), 50 Cent (Escape Plan 2: Hades, Escape Plan: The Extractors), and Brian Dennehy (Silverado, Tommy Boy). It’s about two New York detectives working on a case involving a serial killing vigilante while being investigated by another pair of cops.
The Plot: Surely a movie that gathered such a terrific cast as Righteous Kill must’ve been supplied with something truly transformative in the plot department, right? Not in this case; the lingering effects of Seven and Training Day make up a wholly forgettable narrative.
New York’s latest serial killer, comically dubbed “the Poetry Boy killer” has over a dozen notches in his belt, but the film opens on the tenth of those, with detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) finding clues that would link the killer to the crime. Amidst this, their lieutenant, Hingis (Dennehy) has them on a murder case with club owner/drug dealer Spider (Fiddy) which ends in a botched sting operation, leaving the pusher at large. Gewirtz doesn’t make it hard to see where exactly the fury will stem from and refuses to come up with something just a little different.
No one is happy with how everything went down, resulting in Turk and Rooster being investigated by IA and suspected by fellow cops Perez (Leguizamo) and Riley (Wahlberg) while the bodies continue to mount, finding officer Corelli (Gugino) tagging along with the younger cops. Righteous Kill gets a couple of moments of uniquity like re-interviewing old suspects such as Baum (Blumenfeld) and a failed murder by the Poetry Boy killer which gets one of the movie’s many cops hurt, but nothing saves it from an overly explanatory and continually generic finale. Everything is tied up neatly, but any believability is sacrificed to get there. The treatment of the material is anything but just.
The Characters: Gewirtz fared far better with his leads than he did with the support. Though each cast member gets their own chance to shine, there’s nothing anyone can do to match the stars’ characterization.
Turk and Rooster play well off each other, and they better well should since they’ve been partners for over 30 years. Between them are shared loves of baseball, shooting, working out, and throwing digs at each other and their fellow officers. Both of them remain skilled at their jobs but are getting reckless when on the clock and getting dirty off it. Neither have any arcs per se but watching the steeliness of Turk and intensity of Rooster slip away when in each other’s presence creates an enjoyable dynamic that the two actors and real-life friends show off.
Perez and Riley are the lesser of two pairs. Characterized more by their ages than their personalities, the only real traits that either of them has are their unwillingness to take any ribbing from senior officers who underestimate them and their occasional habit of getting carried away looking at victims’ possessions. But the biggest definer is Perez’s former romantic link to Corelli, who now sees Turk, causing tension between the men.
It’s not much, but it’s something outside of the crime element. Corelli’s presence doesn’t add another layer to Righteous Kill though; she’s at severe odds with the tone, but nothing else. Aside from the sexual validation she gives to Turk, the only dialogue she really espouses are lines about her fetishistic view of violence and negligence.
Both leads get to latch onto something at least somewhat substantial and run away with it, but as for the rest of the ro(o)ster, they’re stuck grasping at air.
The Crime: Whereas the movie’s screenwriter was able to turn the heist film on its head with his previous work, Righteous Kill offers little but subpar reiterations of stale investigations and writing devices.
Hope doesn’t normally last when a film opens with a blatantly obvious untruth, and it doesn’t take long for Avnet to submit one here. Part of Turk’s narrated “confession” is one of the first few things the audience is privy to, and it always comes off as flat since the director hedged his bets on a procedural film, making a far too easy culprit out of the character. Not helping matters is the equally visible bleeding on Turk’s head, virtually guaranteeing his innocence of, if nothing else, the trail of bodies. It helps that neither of the main characters is squeaky clean, but there’s no buying into the diversion.
Mild interest arrives when the perspective switches to those of Perez and Riley, as the two of them come up with the theory that the killer must be a cop, owing the idea to the fact that the scenes never showed signs of forced entry and because the poems hold knowledge of every charge each suspect faced. In the middle of the movie, there’s an actually enlightening sequence in which the two skeptics stakeout ex-cop Baum, who turns the tables on expectations by warning them off while another murder is currently underway.
“Poetry Boy” himself isn’t exactly film’s most intimidating or believable ripper. Though some parts of Righteous Kill’s crime factor work, the hokey poems that paint each victim as patently evil without a single verifiable reason don’t. They would have, provided Avnet was making a drama or a thriller that welcomed inspection, but his movie morphs into procedural mode without a serious threat – unless one’s idea of a threat is cheesy poetry. When the leading men are being investigated, the movie works, but its red herrings are overcooked and less than imposing.
The Technics: Studios can be stupid sometimes. Sure, they shell out the money to visualize a story, but the who and where are equally important. These two facets of Righteous Kill are what truly nerfs the movie.
Avnet has never had much in the way of a directorial presence – or even an eye for the job – but he was picked nonetheless. Oafish decisions like showing the kills from a first-person perspective without consideration for the audience’s lack of understanding of the script. The helmer has read Gerwitz’s work, whereas the viewers haven’t. Visual cues to keep the game fair are absent, and a rhyme or reason for the order in which the murders happen is mentioned but never clarified. A sense of criminal and narrative navigation throttles a good chunk of the movie.
Other crew members like cinematographer Denis Lenoir (The Tale, Disorder), production designer Tracey Gallacher (Between Us, Shallow Grave), and composer Edward Shearmur (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, She’s Funny That Way) did what they could under the orders of their director, but all of their work is middling at best. Shots and scenes look decent, sets and locations are detailed but interchangeable, and the music is sparse and forgettable. Choices like choppy slow motion and freeze frames are jarringly present in a feature that doesn’t accommodate them, but the overall product is still passable.
While legendary leads and solid support bolster the narrative, Righteous Kill isn’t substantial enough in its writing, procedural elements, and technical merits to deserve its positives. It’s not a terrible movie, but it isn’t the sizzling piece that it should’ve been.
Righteous Kill is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Platforms. And if you’re looking for righteous ways to kill time, FilmTagger can suggest a few titles.