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SNEAKS 2008 : 'Righteous Kill'

Master classmates

De Niro. Pacino. Director Jon Avnet saw pros at work.

January 13, 2008|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino -- the names alone conjure a certain kind of streetwise intensity, an acting style of emotional soul-bearing right out of film's '70s heyday. Both rather famously appeared, if separately, in "The Godfather Part II," and it wasn't until the 1995 film "Heat" that they finally arrived on screen together, albeit briefly.

In "Righteous Kill," opening this fall, Pacino and De Niro at long last share the screen for a significant amount of a movie's running time. Coming from new studio Overture Films and directed by veteran Jon Avnet ("Fried Green Tomatoes") from a screenplay by Russell Gewirtz ("The Inside Man"), the latest outing with these legendary actors finds them playing a pair of grizzled New York City cops. With its serial killer through-line and undercurrent of kinky sex, the film could come across as a grubby, late-'90s erotic thriller were it not for the two stars who have three Oscars between them, making "Righteous Kill" something akin to watching two virtuoso jazz musicians work their way around an old standard.

Speaking recently in his West Los Angeles production offices, Avnet said it was the project's mix of lowdown genre and high-style acting talent that appealed to him. "What I thought the twin masters were, and what interested me, was that it's a genre piece and you have to satisfy the whodunit and the procedural elements, but the purpose of that was to serve the characters and the drama. And what better actors than Bob and Al to do a character piece?"

As someone who considers himself a fan of acting, Avnet said the experience of watching Pacino and De Niro at work did not disappoint.

"In a way 'master class' is not a big enough word. I've watched Al do numerous takes, and I've seen his imagination turn into behavior in a way that is astounding. That's what makes him Al Pacino. I've watched Bob do stuff that's so small and then go large in a way that catches you totally off-guard.

"They're both very opaque, you don't know whether they're going to kiss someone or kill them. And that suspense is what makes their performances so intense in the moment."

Though the actors may have their own trademarks -- Pacino's funky bravado and De Niro's interiorized angst -- in "Righteous Kill" they seem to have transferred some of their quirks back and forth as if by osmosis. Pacino brings forward a strain of seriousness that he often steamrolls over, and De Niro looks to actually be enjoying himself.

Highlighting the actors' interactions was Avnet's main goal, hoping for some on-screen alchemy. "They have very different processes," Avnet said. "Al is a trained theatrical actor who can rehearse and rehearse and improve and improve. Bob likes the spontaneity of coming in and doing it. They adjusted to each other, but it's very different styles of working. Which is not that atypical a problem for a director. Often some actors get it all in the first take, some like eight or 10. You're always trying to deal with that."

Avnet found the best way to deal with the differing styles of his stars was to just capture as much as he could simply and directly, keeping them both in the frame whenever possible.

"There were no laws, there were no obvious conclusions," he said. "I wanted to shoot two-shots whenever possible, because I was hoping their timing was going to be really special and I wouldn't have to tinker with it. I wanted to allow them to play off each other. To be able to watch two people who are great at what they do, you feel a responsibility to observe and appreciate it and to whatever extent possible let it brand itself on your brain and your soul and then to share it. There's a tendency to think what they do is easy, but there's a lot of work that goes into it."

Making a movie that will invariably be mentioned in the same breath as "The Godfather Part II" and "Heat," films frequently given the "modern classic" sobriquet, as well as following in the footsteps of directors Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Mann might seem daunting to some but not for Avnet.

"You don't do this job if you're not used to pressure and dealing with anxiety and anxious people," he said. "I happen to be a fan of Michael Mann's, I enjoyed 'Heat' and I really enjoyed the big scene with Bob and Al together. This kettle of fish is a whole movie of the two of them.

"When you say they're good, it's not like they're doing Shakespeare, they're playing New York City detectives; they are as New York as it gets. De Niro and Pacino the way you want to see them." Sounds like Overture's found its tag line.

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