Some of the greatest moments of cinema have come from partnerships. It could be a romantic one when the chemistry between the two leading actors sets the screen on fire. Or it may very well be a non-romantic partnership, either a friendship or more interestingly, an antagonistic one. Two of the greatest actors that Hollywood has ever produced – Al Pacino & Robert De Niro – have featured in the same movie thrice during their incredible and long careers in cinema. They never shared the screen in the first, were on opposite sides of the law in the second, and were great friends in the third. A different setting each time, but it always felt such an honour to get the opportunity to watch the duo in the same movie. Nothing can beat such a partnership!
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Considered one of the greatest movies of Hollywood, and eagerly debated by movie enthusiasts on its standing against its predecessor, The Godfather Part II would not have been what it was if not for the presence of cinema’s two stalwarts. Al Pacino had been a newcomer to the glittery world of cinema when The Godfather released in 1972, but immediately caught everyone’s attention with a performance that got him an Oscar nomination. If people still wondered on his credentials, then another Oscar nomination in the following year for Serpico made it clear that we were watching someone special. Robert De Niro, three years junior to Al Pacino, had a bigger body of work in cinema when Francis Ford Coppola came asking for him. As the story goes, Coppola remembered De Niro’s auditions for the first movie for various roles including that of Michael Corleone, and so when it came to casting a young Vito Corleone, he brought in De Niro for that role. De Niro and Pacino would play father and son in The Godfather Part II but from different timelines, and as the movie kept swapping between the present and the past, we got the first real glimpses of the two actors who would go on to raise the bar for acting in Hollywood. Al Pacino had come into his own when he played Michael Corleone for the second time, moving away from the shadows of Marlon Brando, now the Don of his crime family, confident, smart, shrewd and dominant. De Niro evolved as his part of the story progressed, figuring out more about himself and his character, his strengths, his powers of ‘convincing’ people, his own set of rules, which will go on to form the legendary Don Vito Corleone. Robert De Niro won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, while Al Pacino was famously robbed of a win for Best Actor, something that is still considered as one of the strangest decisions taken by the Academy. Nonetheless, the movie got the audience enthralled about the prospects that lay ahead for these two actors and soon we were yearning for a reunion, this time screen space being shared between them, but we had to wait two decades before that eventually happened.
For all the great movies that Michael Mann has given us, his biggest contribution in my eyes, and those of many others, is to have brought Al Pacino and Robert De Niro on the big screen together, seated side by side. What an explosive scene that was! The movie in itself is terrific, though even here, for large parts Pacino and De Niro are kept apart. Al Pacino is the detective hunting down Robert De Niro and his gang who are wanted for heists, one of which went wrong and led to the death of the security guards of an armored car. Pacino comes across as a figure you sympathise with in the movie; his personal life is in a disarray and the duties as a cop is taking a toll on him. There is still a fierceness in his personality, an old-fashion thought of doing what you are meant to do, completing what has been asked of you. That determination makes for an engaging cat-and-mouse tale between Pacino and De Niro, the latter being a cold, calculated, shrewd criminal with plenty of ‘oomph’ in his personality. Heat may be categorised as a crime thriller, but slotting it under one vertical of movies does not do it justice. It is fascinating for many more reasons, the biggest one being the depth of personalities that its two main actors bring to the screen. The spark which they generate blazes up in that one famous restaurant scene when they sit side by side over a cup of coffee, saying stuff like – “You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do.” Oh boy, it is magical!
Righteous Kill (2008)
Thirteen years since Heat, things had changed a lot. Al Pacino at the age of 68, and Robert De Niro at the age of 65, had seen and done it all. Masters of their trade, they were however no longer the leading faces of their films. Al Pacino kept trying, and attempts at it like in 2007’s 88 Minutes only got him a Razzie nomination, while being part of a bigger cast such as in Ocean’s Thirteen went off much better. De Niro was placing himself comfortably in good supporting roles such as in The Good Shepherd and Stardust right before Righteous Kill happened. When the chance came to play the lead actors again, any skepticism would have been washed away for either of them when they would have seen whom they were pairing with. Even from the perspective of the audience, and definitely for me, the idea of watching Pacino and De Niro on screen again, even after they were past their prime, still held a cinematic beauty to it. As a fanboy, I am grateful to director Jon Avnet for bringing this dream duo together in Righteous Kill. As a fanboy, I am also disappointed in Jon Avnet that he could not give them something better than Righteous Kill. The movie is a plain crime thriller, a far cry from the intrigue of Heat, with Pacino and De Niro playing detectives who are in the hunt of a serial killer. There is a bit of suspense built in the narrative, and a rather predictable twist in the tale. So it wasn’t the ideal vehicle to bring back Pacino and De Niro together; nonetheless, it has been our only chance after Heat to see them on screen alongside each other, and we need to take what little we are given. They may be old and wrinkled in this movie, but their aura stays young and refreshing. They can still hold your attention, delight you with their Italian-tinged voices, and teach the youngsters a lesson or two on what acting is all about.
I wonder if we will ever see Robert De Niro and Al Pacino on screen again. All the more reason why I hold these three movies very dear!
PS: Even though Al Pacino and Robert De Niro did not share screen space in The Godfather Part II, this photo sort of makes up for that!