‘Righteous Kill’: Telltale Signs, By Kurt Loder

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino keep you guessing, and guessing again.

Meet Tom “Turk” Cowan (Robert De Niro). Turk loves his job. He loves the way it allows him to combine his fiercest passion with his favorite activity. “I hate scumbags,” he says. “And I like killing people.”

Turk is a cop, and a hothead, and over the course of his 30 years as a detective with the NYPD, he and his genial, wisecracking partner, David “Rooster” Fisk (Al Pacino), have put away a lot of scumbags. Lately, though, it appears that Turk has been freelancing, too. We know this from the very beginning of “Righteous Kill,” because the movie opens with a videotaped interrogation (which also serves as narration for the rest of the picture) in which Turk, looking straight into the camera, confesses to doing a number of very bad things.

It all started four years earlier, he says, when a child-killer named Randall, whom he and Rooster had caught dead to rights, was set free on a judicial technicality. “My partner and I found this unacceptable,” Turk says. So, with Rooster’s reluctant complicity, Turk planted evidence at another crime scene that falsely implicated Randall and belatedly put him away.

Since that time, Turk says on the tape, he’s killed more than a dozen people, all scumbags, all in clear need of termination — righteous kills. “I think of myself as a street-sweeper,” he says. Not surprisingly, this one-man urban-hygiene campaign has drawn the attention of more fastidious law enforcers, among them a pair of younger detectives named Riley (Donnie Wahlberg) and Perez (John Leguizamo). These two have begun to suspect that the unusually savvy killer they’re seeking may be a cop. And Perez suspects more — that the elusive vigilante is in fact Turk himself.

Bingo, right? Perez deduces that Turk’s the killer, Turk keeps admitting he is — cue shootout. But “Righteous Kill,” which has a tricky script by Russell Gewirtz (“Inside Man”), keeps you guessing for a while — if not about the “who” (there aren’t many choices), then at least about the “how” (or the “how the hell”). And while you’re wondering what’s going on, director Jon Avnet (“88 Minutes”) lays on the tension with smothering close-ups, slam-bang montages and sudden, bloody assaults, all sleekly effective.

Also on the case is Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino), a beautiful crime-scene forensics tech and rough-sex enthusiast who’s currently roughing it, after hours, with Turk. (When he asks her if she specializes in cops, she says no: “Sometimes I do a fireman, or an ex-con.”) Karen and Rooster are worried about Turk, but they resist the possibility that he could be a serial murderer. As victims accumulate, however — an underworld gun runner, a pederast priest, a drug-dealing club owner (played by 50 Cent in a smart, charming performance) — and their past connections to Turk are revealed, everyone else involved in the hunt becomes increasingly convinced.

The plot twist that concludes “Righteous Kill” is subverted by the knowledge that there has to be one. It’s pretty slick, though, in spite of a key implausibility (involving the technical capabilities of a standard-issue security camera), and it generally stands up to retrospective analysis. It’s a shame the picture doesn’t end with more snap, though. It drags a bit as the director — possibly carried away by the thrill of working with two such iconic actors — loses sight of the necessity to get them to stop acting at some point and to bring the picture to a close. I’m not sure how serious a complaint this will be for hard-core Pacino and De Niro fans, though. Somewhere down around the level of under-salted popcorn, probably.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “Burn After Reading,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Righteous Kill.”

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