Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are comparable in more ways than one. Both of Italian-American background, they got their first major roles within a year of one another, worked with the same great directors (though their paths have rarely crossed on screen) and they are often cited as the greatest actors of their generation. Their work in the past decade, however, has all but tarnished their reputation. Did they get lazy? Did they lose their touch? While their downfalls may have caused widespread lamentation, their extraordinary careers deserve celebration.
Already a successful actor, Robert De Niro truly invaded the public consciousness in 1976 as the star of Martin Scorcese’s masterful Taxi Driver. Post-Vietnam/Watergate, the disenfranchised veteran Travis Bickle became an anti-hero in a time of uncertainty and paranoia. The Clash even put him in a song! Raging Bull followed four years later and an Oscar along with it- deserved for the double physical transformation alone. His roles in The Untouchables (1987) as Al Capone and Goodfellas (1990) as ‘unconscionable ball breaker’ James Conway are of particular note, transcending every trope of the mafia genre. De Niro’s role as Deus ex machina plumber Harry Tuttle in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) is often overlooked- he allegedly spent a month researching this minor role, such was his meticulous nature. Watch out for the physics defying rope swing, which for my money is the greatest escape in cinematic history.
Sadly all good things come to an end, and De Niro has done some appalling work this past 10 years: his portrayal of a cross dressing sky pirate in Stardust was a particular low point and the Subaru ‘Legacy’ ad did no favours for his legacy. Meanwhile upcoming films like Grudge Match and The Family look downright offensive, yet even they pale in comparison to The Hangover knockoff Last Vegas– based on the trailer, I have decided it is the worst film of all time.
Al Pacino gave an audition that Francis Ford Coppola could not refuse to win the role of Michael Corleone over established names like Martin Sheen and Robert Redford in 1972 mafia classic The Godfather. He further proved his worth as a leading man a year later with a mesmerising performance as the dishevelled hero cop in Serpico. Over the next twenty years Al Pacino enjoyed a wealth of success in a wide array of roles, though many argue that he peaked with Scarface in 1983.
From the mid-eighties onward Pacino began to ‘experiment’ slightly – his abominable accent in Local Stigmatic Piano (1990) was an early warning sign of horrors to come. Jump forward to 2003 and The Recruit– just like the one dimensional character he portrayed the pay check was his only motive. His turn as bumbling tycoon Willy Bank in Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) compounded his fall from grace; ‘I SLICE… like a goddam hammer!’… er, what?
Worse was yet to come. Reprehensible Adam Sandler ‘comedy’ Jack and Jill (2011) saw him in a Dunkin Donuts campaign as the all rapping, all dancing ‘Dunkaccino’. And now he is hocking Sky Broadband services… Tony Montana, reduced to the status of a bum! This shameless self-pimping has become a disturbing trend; each trip to the cinema ensures exposure to Kevin Bacon in the abominable EE ads. All you can do is shake your head as A Few Good Men becomes The Fewer Good Men.
Although there can be no reparation for Pacino and De Niro’s recent work, and while the future looks even darker, you can always look to the past. No one can take away the brilliance of Taxi Driver, Scarface, or The Godfather saga. Their joint last hurrah was undoubtedly Michael Mann’s operatic heist thriller Heat (1995)-one of their best films, if only it had been their last.