While I’m not one who thinks every film he’s done since the 21st century began is worthless, (aka his ‘working actor’ or ‘I’ll do anything’ phase), I would still count myself among those jaded Robert De Niro fans that saw his Oscar-nominated turn in Silver Linings Playbook about a year ago as a positive sign that he might finally have decided to put some effort in and start finding interesting roles again like he used to. This unfortunately, was not the case. The last couple of years have been his most prolific yet, with fourteen film appearances from De Niro between 2011 and 2013. Since seeing Silver Linings Playbook in January last year I’ve seen a further six De Niro films. I reviewed the average Killing Season in full a few months ago so won’t get into it again here.
‘The Big Wedding’
First off we have The Big Wedding, an ensemble rom-com that remakes a 2006 French original. De Niro leads a host of Hollywood stars – plus Ben Barnes – who mostly play members of the same family unit. Among the other screen veterans to appear are Diane Keaton (as De Niro’s ex-wife), Susan Sarandon (as his current partner) and Robin Williams (as a priest). None of them get away clean, this is a thoroughly embarrassing affair for all involved. The big hook is Keaton and De Niro’s adopted Columbian son (Barnes) is getting married, and they’ve invited his biological mother to the ceremony. The problem being; she’s super-Catholic and doesn’t approve of divorce, so rather than being honest with a newly met family member, they all decide to deceive her and pretend that Keaton and De Niro never got divorced. This moronic idea pans out exactly as predictably as you’d expect. Though the film does venture into some surprisingly R-rated territory at times, it never leads to amusement. There’s nothing especially bad about any of the big name’s performances here, yet there presence makes the film somehow worse, knowing that they’ve all lowered themselves to this.
Freelancers is a crime thriller that was apparently released back in 2012, though I, and I’m sure countless others, never noticed it. According to Wikipedia it had a very brief NY/LA cinema run before swiftly appearing on DVD later the same month. Yes, it’s come to this; De Niro is now showing up in what is essentially a straight-to-video film. Freelancers stars rapper Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson as a rookie cop whose father was killed performing the same job. Not long after graduating, he’s met by his father’s former partner (De Niro) who recruits him into his own special unit. The rest is a hodgepodge of tired and familiar crime movie angles, corrupt cops, street vengeance, shootouts, drug deals, even a romantic subplot is thrown in. Jackson makes for a horrible leading man, delivering an awful performance in every scene. De Niro’s not in the film much, and when he is he mostly just sits back and talks a bit, he avoids the worst moments and you could easily forget he was there at all. The same sadly can’t be said for Forest Whitaker, another Oscar winner who has no excuse to be playing second fiddle to 50 Cent in drivel like this.
While my expectations were suitably low for Freelancers, I had some hope for The Family. Luc Besson may primarily work as a prolific producer of Euro action B-movies like Taken nowadays, but he’s still the man who made great films such as Léon earlier in his career. On top of that, Martin Scorsese is a producer on the film. Scorsese! De Niro! Working on gangster film again! I have to see this! Unfortunately, Scorsese’s involvement doesn’t seem to have amounted to much other than agreeing to have his name on the poster, and mentioned in the film itself in the single most ill-judged attempt at meta-humour I can recall seeing. De Niro plays a former Mafia boss who’s now in the witness protection program, and has been relocated to Normandy with his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and kids. The Family possesses an uneasy tone, happy to go for broad comedy while maintaining a level of violence suited to a proper gangster film that rarely works. The film’s view of the French would surely have been considered stereotypical, if not offensive, had it not been made by a Frenchman. There’s a small amount of amusement to be had from the way the parents’ criminal ways have rubbed off on their children, but how they are able to attend a rural French school without being able to speak French is never explained, everyone else just switches to English when addressing them. De Niro’s casting was a real misstep here, and the aforementioned nadir occurs when his character in the film unwittingly finds himself watching GoodFellas, serving to remind the audience, ‘this guy used to be the best actor in the world, and look what he’s doing now’.
At first glance, Last Vegas looks to be another cringe-worthy comedy team up of screen legends, with De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline all heading to Vegas for an OAP spin on The Hangover. The film has a much gentler tone than that series for the most part though, and strives to mix some more dramatic moments in as De Niro and Douglas’s characters confront their troubled past. The film follows the trip to Vegas taken by four old friends to celebrate the imminent wedding of Douglas to a much younger woman (a little too close to reality?). Freeman and Kline have the more comedic parts, and seem to be having a good deal of fun, with Kline comfortably coming out the best of the main cast. It does contain the most unwelcome celebrity cameo I’ve ever seen coupled with the film’s lowest moment, but for the most part is otherwise a harmless, if mediocre comedy from director Jon Turteltaub.
Finally we have Grudge Match, in which De Niro plays a former boxer who had a past rivalry with another played by Sylvester Stallone. As the film’s entire marketing campaign wishes to remind us, they were once in Raging Bull and Rocky respectively, the two most famous boxing films. At this point it’s worth remembering that while those films are both boxing dramas, they are otherwise quite different, and Raging Bull is infinitely superior. Also, this isn’t the first time De Niro and Stallone have appeared on screen together, they were in 1997’s excellent Cop Land. Neither sullies their past glory here in quite the way The Family did, as they play characters that are different enough from their famed prior ones, but it’s still a film so far below the standard of classics it wishes to cash in on it would have been better off avoiding comparisons. There are a couple of neat touches – the casting of Jon Bernthal as De Niro’s son is an inspired choice, and a few laughs – Stallone throwing De Niro out of a helicopter, but it’s still an overlong, second-rate film undeserving of what might many years ago, have been a legendary team up.
De Niro also appears in cameo role in the very well-received American Hustle that I should be seeing next week, but on the basis of most of his 2013 output, The Irishman, his talked-about re-teaming with Scorsese, Pacino, and Pesci, couldn’t come soon enough.