PARDON the predictability but this feels like an annual column. The one that asks: why are Robert De Niro and/or Al Pacino still slumming it?
In a week of thin DVD and download releases dominated by The Great Gatsby, why not return to De Niro’s malaise?
Actually, it’s quite a month for De Niro’s straight-to-DVD efforts. In three weeks there is Killing Season, in which he and John Travolta star as two Bosnian war veterans going at each other in a remote locale. No, you didn’t miss that at the cinema.
And last month it was the limp ensemble comedy The Big Wedding. This week, De Niro presents himself as a blind psychic, Simon Silver, in the suspense drama Red Lights. The DVD cover uses a handy critic’s fawn that the film is ‘‘this year’s The Sixth Sense’’. More like this year’s The Last Airbender.
Red Lights (M, Warner, 110min, $34.95) is not an entirely bad film and De Niro is surrounded by a cracking cast including Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Jones and Elizabeth Olsen. But what promises to be an interesting look at the debunking of apparently mystic or paranormal occurrences uses a number of its own sensationalist and implausible devices to heighten its drama. It becomes as awful as the shonks it initially derides.
Its writer and director, Rodrigo Cortes, whose 2010 film Buried was a claustrophobic, convincing point of view film set in a coffin with Ryan Reynolds, obviously wanted to insert bells and whistles, including fight scenes, car chases and explosions, into a drama about psychics.
Red Lights gets right down to it. Two scientists, Murphy’s Tom and Weaver’s Margaret Matheson, arrive at a purportedly haunted house and within four minutes they’re participating in a seance, which they quickly debunk. Matheson has devoted her life to exposing psychic con artists, although there is one, De Niro’s Silver, she not only hasn’t cracked but is spooked by.
That’s a nice set-up for two strong actors and, to be fair, De Niro brings a certain charisma to his restrained maestro and Weaver gives Margaret a winning mix of levity and depth.
Unfortunately, the focus on the two veterans wanes as the film builds and Murphy becomes the protagonist in what so obviously will become a ‘‘psychic showdown’’ or reckoning.
You have to invest in the performances because Cortes fails to provide anything else as distinct as a sense of place or point of view. The film has a silly score and lazy narrative shortcuts such as using news reports to raise the stakes of every second action. Ultimately, the ridiculous conclusion kills any point you may have thought Cortes was hoping to make.
Of course, that is the actor’s eternal issue: putting their performance in the hands of others. De Niro gets a pass here; it’s a small performance in a film that promised much more than it delivered.
For that, Cortes, or the producers who allowed such a silly ending, are to blame.
(M) Roadshow (274min, $39.95)
(PG) Hopscotch (116min, $29.99)
Hopscotch (934min, $49.95)