Righteous Kill (2008)

Crimes:

  • Sticking legendary actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in a routine cop thriller better suited to TV stars on hiatus
  • Having the paunchy, slow-footed leads leap about and draw guns like the young bad-asses they decidedly aren’t
  • Featuring “action sequences” that are little more than blurs, jump-cuts, and close-ups of strained faces
  • Starting with a corny premise—De Niro and Pacino investigating a serial killer who may be a score-settling cop—and adding a plot twist that’s simultaneously ridiculous and predictable

Defender: Director Jon Avnet

Tone of commentary: Contemplative. Avnet starts out on a sardonic note, introducing himself as the director of Righteous Kill and “one of 15 producers…  some of whom actually worked on the movie.” But then Avnet largely abandons humor as a conversational gambit, and instead walks us through the action on the screen and behind the scenes in a halting voice. (“Now we introduce… Rob Dyrdek… a skateboard pimp.”) Once he gets warmed up, Avnet waxes philosophical on everything from acting to the American ideals of manhood to the inherent artificiality of any kind of moviemaking, even documentaries. (“You place a camera and you interpose your will,” he says.) Only occasionally does Avnet bring the wit back, as when he says, “The smallest club in the world should be The Director’s Sympathy League,” or when he points to his pre-assault mise en scène and jokes, “Nothing good’s going to come of this slightly tilted Steadicam shot.”

What went wrong: Avnet doesn’t say anything negative about the movie itself, but he does take some shots at the way it came into existence, with much of the production coming together at the last minute—including the casting of Pacino, with whom Avent worked on the equally ill-fated 88 Minutes. The director assembled a cast and crew out of people he’d worked with before (mostly on the TV series Boomtown), and the movie was shot in 35 days, which didn’t give him as much time as he would’ve liked to rehearse with the actors or work out the kinks in Russell Gewirtz’s script. At one point, Avnet praises the way De Niro, Pacino, and co-star Brian Dennehy can turn dialogue into behavior, saying that he admires director Mike Nichols, who encourages his casts to do likewise. Then he adds that Nichols “would be challenged” trying to find something to do with this dialogue.

Comments on the cast: Avnet wants us to know that, contrary to any gossip on the Internet, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson was a total pro on the set, even though “he had a ways to go” as an actor at the start of the project. (Avnet also admires that Jackson “literally pulled himself up by the bootstraps” in his real life.) Donnie Wahlberg, meanwhile, was attentive and giving, perhaps because they developed a beloved-boss/trusted-employee relationship on Boomtown. And Avnet thought it was funny that John Leguizamo’s character makes a joke about iambic pentameter, because Leguizamo was in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

Mostly though, Avnet talks and talks about De Niro and Pacino: how it was difficult (but rewarding) to blend De Niro’s minimalist acting style with Pacino’s more theatrical flair, how both men were very safe with their firearms, and how Pacino is one of the few actors he’d let chew gum on screen. “I rankle at criticism of Bob and Al,” Avnet says, by way of explaining why he’s so complimentary. “To me, they’re national treasures.”

Inevitable dash of pretension: Avnet isn’t so much pretentious as highly intelligent and thoughtful, with taste far more sophisticated than the movie he ended up making. Of De Niro’s script preferences, Avnet says, “Words are impediments that are sometimes obligatory and often unnecessary.” Of his own prep work, he says he tries “to spend time at the locations and dream.” Of Ed Shearmur’s soundtrack, Avnet says it’s “not Arvo Pärt or Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but it’s moody.” Avnet talks about how the act of coaching children’s sports (as De Niro’s character does in the movie) can be “a Proustian remembrance of things past,” and he laments how men can’t talk openly about their feelings in America. (“It’s an uptight country, in general.”) He weighs the difficulty some test audiences had with Righteous Kill’s crazy plot twists, saying, “I always believe that a movie on some level reviews the audience.” And in regards to the nitty-gritty of police work itself and how it relates to moviemaking, Avnet says that on a case as on a film, not only is everything subject to interpretation, “Nothing is subject to non-interpretation.”

Commentary in a nutshell: “If my work doesn’t rise above mediocrity, it won’t be for lack of effort on my part.”

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