The traditional definition in cinema of pornography versus mere trashy exploitation is roughly this: if there's nudity or sex in the first five minutes, it's exploitation. Porno directors know that they have to seduce you a bit.

By that yardstick, Righteous Kill is exploitative, not pornographic. The argument could be made that it's neither of those things, but is actually a cop thriller, and superficially, this is a fair reading. As anyone who's seen even one advertisement knows, however, the big draw of the film has nothing to do with its "cop movie" elements and everything to do with the fact that for the first time ever we get to see two of the living gods of '70s cinema, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, onscreen together for any length of time, after first starring in the same film in 1974's The Godfather, Part II, and first appearing in the same scene in 1995's Heat, though only simultaneously for a tiny handful of shots. In other words, we're showing up primarily to ogle, and my question is: is what we're ogling pornographic, or exploitative.

Director Jon Avnet (who last teamed with Pacino to make the indescribably rancid 88 Minutes) wastes no time in giving us the cumshot: the film opens in an NYPD pistol range where De Niro and Pacino are taking down paper targets with deadly precision and joking around about who's the better shot. So all told, the first image of the two actors together comes less than 30 seconds into the movie, and as a bonus, they're holding guns! What more could you ask for? The good news is that the busy viewer can thus leave after but a single minute, having seen everything that the film is ever going to offer him or her, and very probably get a refund on the ticket price. I think they let you do that if you ditch in the first 15 minutes, or maybe that's a chain-by-chain thing. It's certainly worth trying, in any case.

As for the viewer who chooses to sit things out, what he or she will find is a dreadfully routine procedural about two New York detectives, Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino), investigating a serial killer targeting the various pimps and dealers and rapists who for one reason or another were able to dodge justice in a court of law. Except, as we know from the framing scenes which come right after the opening credits, it's been Turk all along, who narrates the story of his fourteen murders into a video camera. Or does he? Throughout the rest of the film we see many of those murders, shot by Avnet and photography director Denis Lenoir in such a way as to leave no doubt whatsoever that we're not supposed to see the killer's face. And if it's not really Turk doing the killings, that leaves a very small number of very obvious answers for what's going on, and a very long running time to go before we find out if Turk is taking the fall to protect Rooster or if Turk was tricked by Rooster, just like everyone else. It proves to be the latter. That this script could possibly have come from the mind of Russell Gewirtz, who also gave us the supremely successful twists of Inside Man, seems virtually impossible.

Setting aside how awfully the film thus squanders its tension, there's still the whole issue of its badness as a rote procedural, full of tough cops mouthing wiseass dialogue as they beat up bad guys. And... what? It's not just that the film seems utterly schizophrenic on what ought to be its central theme, the morality of police brutality (even a clear-cut endorsement of violent cops would be a step up from muddying the question so badly as Righteous Kill does), it has nothing even remotely approaching a point. Perhaps we're meant to just enjoy watching the characters running about the city, uncovering clues and being wiseasses, but nothing about these characters is terribly interesting or even fully formed: there's the two old guys, and the two younger guys, Simon Perez (John Leguizamo) and Ted Riley (Donnie Whalberg, AKA "Wahlberg the Lesser", the only person bad enough to deserve this material), and the woman in forensics, Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino), who enjoys rough sex with Turk, and Brian Dennehy as the Brian Dennehy Character, the crusty lieutenant in charge of everybody else. These are, on the whole, not characters we want to spend time watching as they pursue fake clues down blind alleys, and that's pretty much the only point to the whole film.

Except, watching De Niro and Pacino isn't totally without its charms. Though neither actor has been terribly good at any point in this decade, and neither of them put much effort into Righteous Kill even by that very low bar, they still have enough chemistry that the film isn't a complete washout, obviously enjoying each other's company and at least in Pacino's case, indicating at every turn that he's privately amused that two of the best & most beloved performers of the greatest decade in American film have both decided that something as crappy and cliché-addled as this is a worthwhile use of their talents. It's good in the way that makes it worth catching on basic cable during the commercial breaks of something better, and no more; but that alone sets it head and shoulders above 88 Minutes.

God, why Jon Avnet? A producer by trade who dabbles occasionally in directing (seven films in 17 years, plus some TV episodes), he has essentially no facility for it whatsoever. If there is a way to sum up all of the dramatic suspense in a scene in one taut image, he will not find it. If there is a slowly developing series of shots which will subtle crank up the audience's tension to the burstin point, he will not use it. His style is rigidly beholden to the beat-beat-beat of an '80s TV crime series, where the person speaking must be the person on-camera, and where nothing can beat a good medium shot for bald-faced exposition. It is a thoroughly coherent style, but a boring one, and speaks of the conservative nature of a man who knows and knows well that "De Niro/Pacino" sells his movie more than niggling things like "quality" ever could.