Pacino understands that this is an opera, about Men who Do What They Gotta Do and the Women who Love Them.

The script has a lot of plot, even for a three-hour movie, so there isn’t a lot of time for irony. Tough guys announce who they are, what they stand for and what they’re feeling at any given moment. Seems a little counterintuitive for tough guys, but the director is looking to humanize them, to make them accessible to an audience, especially women.

De Niro plays against the poetry of the script, holding back, holding back, holding back. Even when he’s announcing who he is and what he stands for, he makes it seem like he’s not telling you anything. He gets that Dispeptic De Niro look on his face, as if revealing himself makes him literally sick to his stomach. Pacino, on the other hand, goes in the other direction, blowing some lines up to absurd, laugh-inducing proportions. He carries the same sickness inside him, but he directs it outward, even when he’s announcing how he keeps everything inside (because it “Keeps me sharp. (snap) On the edge. (snap) Where I gotta be.”).

The story is preposterous, so the direction is crisp and efficient without drawing attention to itself. That makes the action scenes seem matter-of-fact and human somehow, exciting in a way a “slicker” directing style would not be. Another director might have employed a hundred different devices to “jazz up” the action sequences, but Mann keeps it simple and lets the mayhem of the moment speak for itself.

In a cast full of present and future stars (Dennis Haysbert! Natalie Portman! Wes Studi! Tone Loc! Hank Azaria! Jeremy Piven! Xander Berkeley! Mykelti Williamson! William Fichtner! Jon Voight! Henry Rollins! Danny Trejo [playing the role of “Trejo,” no less]!), Diane Venora has the job of being Pacino’s long-suffering wife. She is given some of the densest, most purple lines in the script (“I have to demean myself with Ralph just to get closure with you,” a moment of sober clarity unheard of in any of my messy breakup scenes) and somehow holds her own.
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