Friday, June 4, 2010

Righteous Kill -- losing faith, winning respect

Director: Jon Avnet, 2008. (R)

As Righteous Kill begins we see a grainy home video with a close-up of a man's face. He is saying, "I've been a cop in the NYPD for over thirty years, in that time I've killed 14 people." This is 'Turk' (Robert De Niro) and sets the scene for this sub-par B-feature.

Turk is partnered with Rooster (Al Pacino). Both are NYPD detectives. Both are approaching retirement. Both are jaded and cynical. They have spent their lives working together trying to clear the streets of low-life criminals, only to see them walk free for one reason or another. Early, when a rapist and murderer gets off, they frame him for a different crime. This marks an early turning point. They have crossed the line. Catholics, as they pray in church, Turk says to Rooster, "I've lost my faith."

Faith is something we cling to. It provides a set of values for us to live by. It connects us to our God. By faith we look beyond ourselves to someone bigger. We realize life is about more than just us. But when we see injustice flourish it is easy to lose heart and hope, as Turk did, and think that God is missing, or has left us. We lose sight and then lose faith. When we do it damages us, then destroys us. The psalmist Asaph recognized this millennia ago, as he struggled with this very thing (Psa. 73). But in the middle of his compliant he remembered that God has not promised recompense and justice in this life, but the one to come (Psa. 73:17).

With faith gone, there is nothing to anchor our soul, nothing to steer our values. We become rudderless, ready to do anything. This is Turk.

As Righteous Kill progresses, a serial killer begins to murder the sociopaths who have walked free. Where the judicial system cannot prevail, this killer will. Akin to the Charles Bronson film of the 70s, Death Wish, this is a vigilante in New York taking matters into his own hands. Leaving a poem at each murder as a calling card ("He trades in sin, distributes flesh, He picks his fruit when it is fresh, Now someone must slap his whore, His heart has stopped he breathes no more.") he is nicknamed the poetry killer.

Having to see a psychiatrist for killing a gangster in the line of duty, both Turk and Rooster share insights into their psyches. When asked, "How do you feel when you've fired your weapon?" Turk responds, "Dirty Harry said there's nothing wrong with a little shooting, as long as the right people get shot." But who are the right people? And what gives Turk the right to shoot them? Who made him judge, jury and executioner?

Righteous Kill highlights the pent-up frustration that occurs when criminals defeat the judicial system and are acquitted of crimes. In these cases the cops, even the common man in the street, know the system failed and the defendant should be locked up. But if we live in a democracy like America where we can participate in government we cannot simply rebel and take the law into our own hands when we suspect a criminal has gotten off scot-free. Paul said that God has put our governing authorities over us and we must submit to them (Rom. 13:1). We must trust the system, even if it occasionally fails, else we risk bringing on anarchy.

Suspecting a cop, the team of Rooster and Turk are paired with Perez (John Leguizamo) and Riley (Donnie Wahlberg). Tensions run high as Turk is sleeping with Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino), another NYPD homicide detective who used to be Perez' girlfriend. Brian Dennehy rounds out the cast as Lt. Hingis.

With this cast of actors, especially Pacino and De Niro, we expect something better. What they deliver here is a predictable, almost boring cop "thriller". These two veteran actors are simply going through the motions. They have appeared together three times now. They first time was in The Godfather Part 2 (1974), where De Niro won an Oscar. There they both played gangsters, but had no scenes together. In 1995 they were on opposite sides in Heat, with Pacino a cop and De Niro a criminal, and had just one scene together. We had to wait 13 years for them to finally have extended screen time with each other, here as two policemen, and the wait was simply not worth it.

If the focus of the film is on the righteous killings committed by a cop, the core value of the movie is respect. Turk verbalizes this: "You don't become a cop because you want to serve and protect. You join the force because they let you carry a gun and a badge. You do it because you get respect." He adds, "Most people respect the badge. Everyone respects the gun."

Women want love; men want respect (Eph. 5:22-33). But how do we get this? Do we get it by displaying a gun, like Turk believes? No, that is the way of force. That is a false respect. It is a respect of the gun, not the man. Remove the gun and you lose the respect. Respect in reality must be earned, not bought. It comes from character and integrity demonstrated in how we live, how we treat others. There is no shortcut to real respect, not even through fielding a firearm.

Turk wants respect. And he gets it, through his weapon. But De Niro and Pacino lose some of our respect through this mediocre addition to their resume. For academy Award winners once the highlight of Hollywood, they are sinking low.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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