Worth Your Time: De Niro and Pacino In "Heat"

Once upon a time, the prospect of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino on screen together, mano a mano, would've provoked a wildly different reaction than the one I have whenever I see posters for their new cop flick, "Righteous Kill." Twenty years ago I'd have raced you to the theater. Now? All I see is two bored, scowling men paired up for a movie that sounds as though it's about a surfing competition ("Dude, that was a righteous kill!"), and all I think is, "Oh, no." This isn't the first time De Niro and Pacino have stooped to self-parody in paycheck roles. It's just the first time they've done it as a team. Too harsh? The director is Jon Avnet, the man behind "Fried Green Tomatoes," as well as Pacino's latest, "88 Minutes," which was notable only for being 17 awful minutes longer than the title promised.

My advice: skip "Righteous Kill" and catch De Niro and Pacino together at a moment when "De Niro and Pacino together" actually meant something. It happened only once, in Michael Mann's 1995 crime epic "Heat" and—aside from the climactic, largely wordless shoot-out—only for a single scene: at a roadside diner, the two sit down for the most thrilling cup of coffee in cinema history. (Both actors were in "The Godfather: Part II" but never shared the screen.)

What's great about the diner scene is, ironically, how preposterous it is. In Mann's meticulously constructed saga, there's no earthly reason for the good guy and the bad guy to meet for a chat, except to give the audience this moment of bliss. Once De Niro and Pacino are across the table from each other, the movie drops away, as if Mann pressed "pause," and the two characters discuss who they are and why they do the things they do, like rival samurai trading philosophies during a breather from combat. De Niro's bank robber is wary but calm and guileless; Pacino's cop is a cocksure raconteur, savoring the presence of a worthy adversary. There's no music, no plot, no fancy camera tricks. Just six minutes of pure acting. The men finish their coffee, then return to their separate worlds. If De Niro and Pacino had any sense—any fingertips for the meta-universe of movies, where such collisions are so powerful precisely because they're so rare—they would've left it that way.