Saturday, September 13, 2008

Righteous Spoilers

After asking the girl behind the ticket counter to describe the films, I said to her: "Based on all that you know about me, would I more enjoy Burn After Reading or Righteous Kill?" Somehow, without giggling, she gave me the impression that I would probably like the latter, since a lot of people were buying tickets to it, while the former was more of a comedy. So I followed her advice and saw Righteous Kill. And now let's roll some pictures so that, if you don't want to see spoilers, you can pull out without risk.
This film was directed by Jon Avnet, who also directed Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Up Close and Personal (1997), and last year's 88 Minutes, among not very many other things. It was written by Russell Gewirtz, who also wrote Spike Lee's bank-robbery-with-a-twist film Inside Man (2006). It stars Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as buddy cops - homicide detectives, actually. You may remember seeing them both in The Godfather, Part II (1974), though they never appeared together in the same scene. Or you may remember them from Heat (1995) - which, judging by a conversation I overheard as I walked out of the theater, at least some in the audience do. SPOILER: Last time it was Pacino who killed De Niro. Now it ends up the other way around.

Also starring as partner detectives are Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo, who led the cast of the 2007 Spike TV series Kill Point (in the last episode of which Wahlberg kills Leguizamo). SPOILER: They both live through this one. Their lieutenant is played by Brian Dennehy, and Carla Gugino rounds out the principal cast as a crime-scene analyst who has romantic ties to both Leguizamo's character and De Niro's.

All the characters are pretty well into antihero territory, except you are immediately forced to suspect that one of them is actually a villain. The obvious villain, from the first shot of the film, is De Niro - which makes it a sure thing it isn't really him, since only a very lousy mystery would begin by telling you who done it. Gradually the cop characters begin to suspect that the serial killer they are looking for is also a cop; and their first suspect is also De Niro. He looks guilty as hell. But the Gugino character also looks pretty fishy. Who knew that (SPOILER!!!) it was Pacino all along? Pacino who, hypothetically speaking, says "I'm the killer" at one point; Pacino who is the first to point out the possibility that the killer is a cop; Pacino who seems to be trying to deflect suspicion from his partner while the real killer seems to be doing everything in his power to frame De Niro?

Well, I knew, from almost the very start. I spent most of the movie asking myself, not "Did De Niro really do it?" or "Who did it?", but "How does Pacino get De Niro to confess on video to 14 murders that Pacino committed?" That was the puzzler that kept me on the hook until the end of the movie. And in retrospect, the fact that the two lead characters are always addressed by their nicknames Turk and Rooster turns out to be the conceit that makes it all work. For although De Niro begins the film with the words "My name is David Fisk," you don't realize until the point in the story where he actually makes this statement that David Fisk is the name of Pacino's character.

So, essentially, the whole messy, convoluted plot boils down to a single trick: you assume Turk=Fisk all along because the person who first says "I am Fisk" is always called Turk, and never by his own name. The film is, at bottom, all about finding out the names of its main characters, establishing identity, learning who is who. And once you realize who they really are, you see them in a different way. Instead of a homicidally angry cop who could explode at any moment, you finally perceive De Niro's "Turk" as the kind of guy who lets his serial-killer partner fire several rounds over his head without shooting back - who tries to talk him out of committing suicide by cop - and who, in firing the "kill shot" that ends their standoff, can be seen painfully surrendering to the inevitable.

It's a brilliant deception. Whether or not the motivations of Pacino's character are at all plausible, I cannot say. The police psychologist character in the film seems to consider the idea of a serial-killer cop ludicrous. Some of Pacino's actions as the villain seem arbitrary and even contradictory, self-defeating. Some of De Niro's behavior makes him look guilty. But the film's attempt to conceal the identity of the real killer (and rapist, by the way) seemed a bit silly by the end. You should know De Niro couldn't be the guy who raped his girlfriend. By the very fact that they don't show you who did it - or the guy who visits the wounded witness's hospital bed with dastardly plans - or the picture Gugino shows the witness when she asks: "Is this the man who shot you?" - you ought to know enough to surmise that it isn't De Niro's face you aren't seeing. And because of the way movies work (as opposed to reality), it can only be one other person.

A final word about the cast. Trilby Glover plays the lawyer-turned dope defendant-turned informant against Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson. As Victim #14, Jackson creates the kind of screen presence that makes you hope that his character gets a bullet in the head; so his spectacular death gives a good deal of satisfaction. Glover, on the other hand, has a certain Alicia Silverstonesque cuteness. She seems too smart to play "clueless," but because of her charm and beauty you might feel protective of her - which heightens the suspense of the scene in which she risks her life in a sting operation.

It seems a pity that her character has so little screen time. She's the nicest thing to look at in the whole movie, and even with a cocaine habit her character comes across as a nicer person than the cops and crooks who populate the movie. De Niro's voice-over (actually reading Pacino's written confession) explains why this may be the case. Cops and crooks share a darker slice of life than everybody else - a side of existence the rest of us barely notice as we go around shopping, eating out, and watching movies. This isolates cops from regular folk and gives them a more negative outlook on the world, since they spend so much time with the worst sliver of the social pie graph, and since they are trained to look out for things most of us ignore. This does as much as anything to explain what makes Pacino's character, as a killer cop, tick - and why De Niro and the other detectives in the film have such tough, unpretty lives outside of work. Yet the movie ends on a note of hope: a gift that, after Godfather II and Heat, you may not expect.

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