So let’s start with Heat. 1995. Michael Mann’s mammoth crime drama revolves around the meaty existential showdown between two men. Al Pacino is the cop, Vincent Hanna, driven, relentless, totally committed to his job. Robert De Niro is the bank robber, Neil McCauley, driven, relentless, totally committed to his job.
McCauley and his crew carefully plan the inevitable Last Big Heist; Pacino and his crew keep close on their tail. We catch glimpses into the private lives of both men—filled with long-suffering women—but mostly we wait. Not for the thunderous machine-gun climax on the streets of downtown LA that follows the heist. Not to see which man is left standing at the end. But for a quiet scene in a diner, where Pacino and De Niro—two of American cinema’s greatest actors, hell, for argument’s sake let’s say America’s Two Greatest Actors—finally appear onscreen together. The two had appeared 20 years earlier in The Godfather, Part II—but they’d never shared the screen before.
The scene comes midway through the three-hour film. It’s not long, and in every way it’s a stunt—Hanna has commandeered first a chopper, then a car, to trail McCauley before the big heist, accompanied by Mann’s glittery visuals and a throbbing guitar-laden soundtrack; on the side of the freeway the characters get their first looks at each other, and Hanna invites McCauley to coffee. The improbability of the setup works, because the whole point of the movie is not the probing meditation on professional operators and the code they live and die by (a common Mann motif), but De Niro and Pacino acting in a scene.
Imagine! Two actors so revered that a whole movie—a giant epic of a movie by an ace filmmaker—is conjured into the world solely to allow them to collide. In one five-minute scene. Heat, for all its intelligence and ambition, is not really a movie at all. It’s a Title Bout. It’s a Rumble in the Jungle, Hollywood Heavyweight Division.
Throughout the film, and especially in their one scene, the actors’ best traits are on display. De Niro: internal and inscrutable, commanding, still but poised to strike like a big cat. Pacino: external, lively, florid, radiant. The men quietly, respectfully joust with one another, tell stories and reveal their souls to each other. Each recognizes the other as a worthy rival, as a compatriot in spirit, if not in fidelity to the rule of law. In another life they would be friends. But they also swear to each other that they will bring the other down. It’s a scene that worships at the feet of both actors.
Of course, no scene could live up to such mythic expectations—it’s a good scene but far from the greatest moment in either man’s illustrious career—but it works. The best moment is when both actors briefly allow their characters to smile at the realization that they are acting in a scene together at long last. For a second both essentially break character to smile at the audience, and each other, at the coolness and silliness of it all; they’re playing the real subtext of the scene, which is that the two actors know they can’t really act each other to a pulp, though I suppose that’s why we’re all hanging on this moment.
Then their smiles fade. De Niro muses that, after this, “Maybe we’ll never see each other again.” He’s talking as much about working with Pacino as he is about McCauley eluding Hanna. It’s the only way such a clash of titans can honorably end—in a draw.
Now flash-forward to 2008. The biggest movie of the year, The Dark Knight, is stamped through and through with the crime-saga DNA of Heat. And a new picture, Righteous Kill, again teams De Niro and Pacino. True, the novelty of bringing them together only works once, but it’s been 13 years, so we should be reasonably stoked to see these guys mixing it up with each other again.
But I think it’s safe to say that, dumped in the fallow weeks between the summer and Oscar season, Righteous Kill has been met with a collective shrug of indifference. (It was not even the highest-grossing film during its initial weekend of release.) The movie is a serial-killer whodunit, and all the clues point to a cop as the killer. De Niro and Pacino are NYPD detectives—and friends—working the case. One of them is likely the killer. But which one? Do you really care? The pair have ample time together onscreen, but the movie is an inert, disappointing turd. And you figure both actors know it.
So what happened? A lot of mediocre, dull, weak, disappointing De Niro and Pacino movies—and a few out-and-out stinkers—happened.
Sure, it would be unfair to ask Pacino, after a handful of indelible characters—Michael Corleone, Frank Serpico, Sonny Wortzik—why he hasn’t hit that level again. And it would be unfair to ask of De Niro, who packed on 60 pounds to play Jake LaMotta, who performed most of his Oscar-winning role in The Godfather II speaking in a language, Italian, he didn’t actually speak, to dazzle us with some new bit of Method dedication.
And true, we can’t paint with too broad a brush. Otherwise we’d miss Pacino’s terrific performance in Michael Mann’s The Insider, as a television producer trying to shepherd a cigarette whistle-blower (Russell Crowe) onto 60 Minutes ... or his Emmy-winning role in Angels in America. Or solid performances in Insomnia and Donnie Brasco. And with De Niro, we’d miss his supremely cool movie-star turn in Ronin—if you’re gonna slum for a paycheck, this is the kind of superbly crafted entertainment to do it in—or his recent directorial effort, The Good Shepherd, an inert but ambitious attempt to make The Godfather of CIA movies, which features him in a small but effective role as the fictional Bill Sullivan, founder of the CIA.
But paint we must. Because a lot is at stake. We’re dealing not with two great actors who’ve tossed in a few lackluster performances, or chased a couple of big paydays to appear in junk. We’re talking that the Unalloyed Quality both men stood for in the heyday of their careers is in jeopardy of being forever tarnished, or forgotten. We’re talking Pacino turning up with a two-inch-thick sprayed-on tan for the tiresome Ocean’s 13, or wasting his time on cardboard movies like 88 Minutes or Two for the Money or Gigli. De Niro’s list of clunkers is even longer—The Fan. 15 Minutes. The Score. Showtime. Godsend. Hide and Seek. Analyze That. (Is it the actor or the movie? At some point you stop caring, because it doesn’t matter.) And what are we to make of Bobby D as a cross-dressing fairy pirate in the fantasy Stardust? The world has ended.
True, over the years we’ve begun to respond to them differently, and that may have influenced the choices they’re making. Pacino’s Achilles heel is, of course, that penchant of his to not just chew scenery but to consume it whole, to push his instinct toward moments of grand passion off the road and toward the biggest ditch he can find. By the time of his oversized Oscar role in Scent of a Woman this had become a part of the Pacino screen persona, and we had begun to make our peace with it. We knew Al could go a little nuts in his movies, and we basically decided that was okay. Sometimes you got great Al. Sometimes you got batshit Al, which sometimes was entertaining. So in movies where Pacino is playing an over-the-top Svengali—Two for the Money, The Recruit, The Devil’s Advocate—we give him a pass, because he’s our favorite scenery-chewer.
(Truth be told, he chowed down a bit in Heat, taunting Hank Azaria by describing a woman Azaria is seeing: “She’s got a GREAT ASS … and you’ve got your head … ALL THE WAY UP IT!” Azaria looks, as both actor-in-character and bystander, completely mortified.)
De Niro, meanwhile, has reportedly complained that he is seen with too much reverence, and maybe this is why he has it tougher than Pacino. We cut him no slack. In his impenetrable awesomeness, we hold him to the highest standard. We expect not an actor disappearing into a role, not even a commanding star turn, but The Coming Of The Great Actor Who’s About To Do Something Great.
Our demand is a trap. We want his volcanic immensity, but when we get a movie like Casino, we think, “He already did this shtick in Goodfellas.” When he tries to break out in comedies, to poke fun at that image of stern impressiveness (Analyze This or Meet the Parents), we still feel let down, like the great Robert De Niro is phoning it in on these intermittently funny comedies. The guy can’t win. When Pacino plays the cartoon villain in Dick Tracy, we don’t mind—that’s crazy Uncle Al—but when De Niro lights out for similar territory, as in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, it seems a monumental betrayal.
In America, the great actors eventually become movie stars, and the movie stars eventually become caricatures. Now Pacino’s legendary over-the-top, booming-voice madman and De Niro’s trembling, explosive frowning sneer, his “you talking to me” verbal incendiaries, have become like a hall of mirrors, a cliched spectacle of diminishing returns.
We’ll do our part to help, guys. We’re gonna put the whole legends thing aside for a while. Let you be just regular actors again. Give you room to surprise us—and to surprise yourselves. But you have to do your part, too. A little quality control, please, so that we can look forward to De Niro/Pacino III.