Michael Mann's superb 1995 film Heat starred Al Pacino as a cop locked into a game of cat-and-mouse with professional thief Robert De Niro. Apart from the action finale, the two icons have only one scene together, but what a scene. At a diner, they establish a cautious rapport rooted in a professional respect. In another life, where they weren't required to kill each other, it might have blossomed into friendship. For everything that divides them, the pair keeps talking around something bigger that unites them. Where other directors would have wasted a lot of dialogue elaborating on the thin line between cop and criminal, Mann simply illustrates it.
Righteous Kill plays like a feature-length apology for that scene. Pacino and De Niro share a lot of time together, relying on the default personas they've ossified into in the years since Heat. Pacino is sardonic and verbal. De Niro is tight-lipped and intense. But apart from their quirks, their characters—lifelong NYPD partners—seem interchangeable. Trudging through a thriller that would have felt warmed over in 1988, the pair investigate a serial killer taking out criminals who've slipped through the justice system. In time, all signs point to someone on the police force itself.
We know that already, however, since scenes of De Niro confessing to the crimes serve as a framing device. Or is it really his confession? Viewers who have seen films in which grim, leather-jacket-clad cops with bad attitudes buck the system will have probably figured out the twists in the script (by Inside Man screenwriter Russell Gerwirtz) long before the characters, and director Jon Avnet doesn't offer much compensation for the absent suspense. The novelty of watching De Niro and Pacino team up wears off pretty quickly. These men probably still have great performances left in them, but they look silly trading Quentin Tarantino-inspired riffs on Underdog—a cartoon they probably wouldn't have been watching when they were twentysomethings, when it first aired—and roughing up suspects like 50 Cent (credited as Curtis Jackson), as if engaged in a two-man war on the young.