Robert De Niro and Al Pacino on the QT, De Niro movie roles, Pacino film roles, underrated movies

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They've been linked since 1974 and "The Godfather: Part II." Al Pacino, with only one major performance behind him, had become a major star with a perfectly modulated performance as reluctant Mafia prince Michael Corleone in "The Godfather." Two years later, Robert De Niro's energetic work as the young Vito Corleone in the universally acclaimed sequel transformed the respected working actor into an almost instant superstar. The laws of time and space dictated that they could not appear together as father and son (this wasn't "Back to the Future: Sicilian Style"), and so the two remained on separate tracks. Even in Michael Mann's hugely successful 1993 action drama, "Heat," the ballyhooed Pacino-De Niro collaboration was mostly limited to a single scene over a cup of coffee at a pricey Beverly Hills eatery. It was as if all that intensity could only be contained in a few minutes of caffeine-fueled conversation and posturing.

The release of the new cop thriller, "Righteous Kill," promises more Bob-and-Al interaction, but there's no reason these two acting powerhouses with Italian surnames can't share the screen comfortably. There's no taking away from the power of their most iconic non-"Godfather" roles: screwed-up vigilante-in-training Travis Bickle ("Taxi Driver"); hapless would-be bank robber Sonny Wortzik ("Dog Day Afternoon"); troubled boxer Jake LaMotta ("Raging Bull"); ultra-ambitious immigrant gangster Tony Montana ("Scarface"); or quick to kill wise guy Jimmy Conway ("Goodfellas"). And there's a lot more to these two performers than barely concealed rage, well-wrought angst and occasional bouts of scenery munching. Below are 20 of their more obscure performances showing that, thespian demigods or not, these two guys from New York City are also two versatile entertainers.


"The Panic in Needle Park" (1971)
The Panic in Needle ParkJust a few months before the release of "The Godfather," Pacino impressed critics and an all-too select audience with his performance in this little-seen quasi-independent film. (It's something of a family project from director Jerry Schatzberg, producer Dominick Dunne, and famed authors Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.) The young Pacino turns in what starts out as an uncharacteristically light and sweet-natured performance as Bobby, a young drug dealer gently romancing Helen (the touching Kitty Winn), a nice girl from out of town who winds up on the less savory edges of New York's Bohemian scene. The ravages of heroin slowly take their toll, and Bobby becomes manipulative and ultimately downright cruel as the situation deteriorates. Eventually, he is both husband and pimp to the girl he loves, and he takes out his anger on both his wife and himself. He just can't forgive Helen for giving in to the same need that's nearly deprived him of his humanity. It's utterly hypocritical, but the wide-eyed young actor holds our empathy with his plight. At 31, in his first starring role in only his second film, the young actor had showed he could take a character, and his audience, just about anywhere a screenplay could dictate.

"Cruising" (1980)
CruisingAfter cementing his reputation with an extraordinary series of hugely acclaimed performances, including his Oscar-nominated turns in both "Godfather" films, "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," and "And Justice for All," Al Pacino was not about to play it safe. And nothing could have been edgier at the dawn of Reagan's America than this baroque, punk rock-fueled look at the gay S&M scene from writer-director William Friedkin ("The French Connection" and "The Exorcist"). Pacino plays Steve Burns, a young cop assigned to go undercover in search of a serial killer targeting gay leathermen. The film's emphasis on the absolute seamiest side of gay culture angered post-Stonewall activists even as it was being filmed, and the subject matter was of little interest to straights. Nevertheless, "Cruising" stands as an unusual glimpse into pre-AIDS New York and contains one of Pacino's most interesting and unnerving performances. The film's approach frustrates the viewer's desire for a direct answer to any of the questions it raises – including just what the film's (probably) heterosexual Burns is experiencing psychologically as he finds himself chin deep in a world of strange sex and stranger violence. But, if you look closely, there is plenty of emotional information in the actor's reading of Burns. His performance can't directly answer the film's obvious questions, but it's clear that the investigation has changed him in a way he'd rather not deal with, and will likely never recover from. The sexual aspect of the ordeal might be the least of it.

"Author! Author!" (1982)
Author! Author!If Al Pacino's advisers wanted him to "repair" his onscreen image after the controversy and box-office failure of "Cruising," he could not have done a more obvious 180. Directed by Arthur Hiller and written by noted playwright Israel Horovitz, "Author! Author!" attempts to draw heart-warming laughs from Horovitz's own experiences as a single multi-father. Pacino plays a struggling playwright deserted by his current wife (Tuesday Weld) saddled not only with his own two boys, but an assortment of stepchildren, some of whom are actually his wife's stepchildren. If this Bohemian variation on "The Brady Bunch" sounds kind of treacly, it is. To make matters worse, one of the younger cast members delivers the single most annoying precocious teenager performance in the history of mainstream cinema, as he portrays, we suppose, a variation on Horovitz's real-life smart-aleck son, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. (Let's hope the real-life future King Ad-Rock was funnier.). Still, Mr. Pacino maintains his dignity and even gets laughs in his scenes with the offending youth, as well as the rest of the cast, and holds on to his dignity and believability in some pretty trying circumstances. In particular, he manages some nice romantic and comedic chemistry with the underrated Dyan Cannon as a new girlfriend. In any case, after the film was completed, the star apparently decided that one soft-and-cuddly Pacino family comedy was sufficient. His next project: "Scarface."

"Dick Tracy" (1990)
CruisingAfter his Razzie-nominated performance in the disastrous 1985 historical epic, "Revolution," Al Pacino took a years-long break from movies. When he returned in 1989, his work took on a more diverse and decidedly lighter cast with a rare traditional leading man role in a witty and sexy thriller, "Sea of Love," and his gigantically grotesque performance as the villainous Big Boy Caprice in actor-director Warren Beatty's underrated and innovative salute to Chester Gould's classic comic strip. Sporting a hump back, goonish make-up, an exaggerated gravel voice (a foretaste of things to come) and a ridiculous East Coast accent, Pacino's Big Boy may fancy himself an intellectual – he's fond of attributing various nonsensical aphorisms to randomly selected historical figures – but he is a pure cartoon creation. Both menacing and ridiculous, he informs an uncooperative policeman, "You have just said goodbye to oxygen," before making good on his threat. Perhaps what makes Pacino's Big Boy so funny and oddly pathetic is that he really does, on some level, aspire to being more than he is. Brutally trying to put his stamp on a dance number with Madonna's Breathless Mahoney and a group of chorines at the nightclub he has taken over, he acts like a bargain basement Busby Berkeley, demonstrating pelvic thrusts despite some pretty extreme physical limitations, and generally embodying the part of the choreographer from hell. Big Boy might be a ruthless and ambitious gangster, thief, and murderer, but what he really wants to do is direct.

"Carlito's Way" (1993)
Carlito's WayAt first blush, the role of Carlos "Charlie" Brigante in Brian De Palma's underrated thriller might seem like a bit of creative coasting on Al Pacino's part. After all, a Nuyorican ex-con and formerly successful gangster attempting to make his fortune on the straight and narrow sounds like a rather calculated cross between his roles in "Scarface" and "The Godfather: Part III." And, indeed, just when poor Carlito thinks he's out, the cokehead shyster lawyer he credits with his freedom (Sean Penn, having some fun for a change) pulls him back into a criminal maelstrom. But this is no attempt to duplicate past hits (which is good, because the film failed to do much at the box office). Carlito is, for one thing, a hero – whatever his past, right now he's trying like hell to do the right thing by his own lights and for those close to him. As with most of Pacino's later roles, the actor's accent and mannerisms tend to call attention to themselves, but there's a sense of genuine authority and rapport with his costars that makes Carlito/Charlie one of Pacino's most affecting characters. Playing morally ambiguous, or outright evil characterization are fine, but it's nice to see him play a flawed person who is, nevertheless, trying hard to be good.

"City Hall" (1996)
City HallSpeaking of moral ambiguity, it goes without saying that you're going to find plenty of it in the world of local politics. (All politics is local!) Nevertheless, with his constant talk of the needs of ordinary people, John Pappas seems like an ideal mayor for New York City. Indeed, as he finds himself embroiled in an especially implausible series of complications and entanglements resulting from the accidental police killing of a small boy, and the mayor's too-close-for-comfort relationship with a morally compromised pol (Danny Aiello), Pacino's character seems to foreshadow Martin Sheen's President Josiah Bartlett from "The West Wing" – deeply human but also wise to the ways of the world and brimming with fine intentions. Does he seem a little too good to be true? Of course, but as the body count mounts rather beyond the point of plausibility, and Pappas deftly manages John Cusack as a crusading Deputy Mayor getting into life-threatening scrapes no political aide should ever get into, there are further depths to explore. And while the film's storyline may be out of control, Pacino's crucial performance remains firm and, after a fashion, allows the overly complicated plot's final revelations to, more or less, make sense.

"Donnie Brasco" (1997)
Donnie BrascoThis modest, fact-based Mafia drama stars Johnny Depp as FBI undercover investigator Joseph Pistone, who becomes low-level wiseguy Donnie Brasco and finds himself cooperating in the destruction of a man who becomes a surrogate father: Al Pacino as shlubby made guy Lefty Ruggiero. Even though Lefty admits to 26 contract killings, the actor deftly plays him as an affectionate, even sensitive, man who really does care about the young up-and-comer he's mistakenly vouched for. Pacino's Lefty goes to the heart of our fascination with organized crime: are men like him much different than any solider or policeman who is trained to use violence in certain settings, but not in others? If he likes someone, Lefty seems to have as much compassion and empathy as most of us (criminal sociopaths are not supposed to have any), staying with his girlfriend presumably out of love and loyalty, and not for the sex. (He has been afflicted with "cancer of the prick.") In the end, Lefty calmly accepts the cost of his valued but unwise friendship with Brasco/Pistone. It's a tragic role, and also an unusually fitting one in light of the Pacino canon. Lefty is a guy who'd be lucky to kiss Don Michael Corleone's ring, but Pacino's bitterly down-to-earth performance is a fitting addendum to a career playing gangsters: Don Corleone is a king; Tony Montana is a warrior emperor; and Lefty Ruggiero is cannon fodder.

"Any Given Sunday" (1999)
Any Given SundayOliver Stone's stylistically excessive sports drama initially threatens to bury all its characters underneath a sea of visual and audio information. Fortunately, Stone was able to attract actors who, for the most part anyway, were capable of standing up to the onslaught. As embattled NFL coach Tony D'Amato, Al Pacino is, like his greatest post-"Godfather" creation, salesman Ricky Roma of "Glengarry Glen Ross," a supremely skilled old pro in a world of questionable new standards. Facing off against a hip-hop generation quarterback (Jamie Foxx) with a less than cooperative attitude and a beautiful but conniving greedhead of an owner (Cameron Diaz), D'Amato may be at the point of chucking it all. But, since this is a sports movie, the love of the game is still a factor; we can see it in Pacino's eyes, now hangdog and more expressive than ever with age. We're actually relieved when the beautiful young woman (Elizabeth Berkley) he sleeps with proves to be a very high-class prostitute, thoroughly uninterested in a non-professional relationship with D'Amato. It's sad, but no surprise to the old coach, he's used to being past his prime physically. But does he still have the mental and emotional stamina for the excessively demanding world of professional football? Pacino's close-to-the-vest performance keeps us asking.

"Devil's Advocate" (1999)
Devils AdvocateThere's one criminal mastermind even more powerful than Michael Corleone at his height, and Pacino finally got to play him in this nonsensical but highly entertaining occult thriller-cum-moral-fable from Taylor Hackford ("Ray," "An Officer and a Gentleman"). There's no great effort to hide the true identity of super-lawyer John Milton – not only is the title pretty much a tip-off, but it's clear that unspeakably successful young defense attorney Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is not up on his 17th century lit. He doesn't notice his new boss has the power to seduce just about everyone, and also shares the name of the author of the most famous book ever to have Satan as its protagonist (that's "Paradise Lost" for you non-English-lit majors). Still, what's marvelous about Pacino's performance here is that, for once provided with a character with absolutely no moral shading, he resists the temptation to blow his demonic wad all at once, actually giving a relatively restrained performance for late-period Pacino – until it's time for the big, pre-apocalyptic finish. When he does, it's a funny and frightening Honeybaked Ham of a performance that gives overacting a good name. Lots of other actors have had great success putting a charismatic, seriocomic spin on the ultimate bad guy (Ray Wise of "Reaper" comes to mind), but few have done so with such precision and energy.

"Angels in America" (2003)
Angles in AmericaSpeaking of immoral lawyers and figures of pure evil, to mid-to-late 20th century liberals, Roy Cohn was both. A highly fictionalized version of the venal, intolerant, homophobic and homosexual, Cohn plays a crucial role in this superb full-length HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's fantastical six-hour play. Al Pacino's interpretation of the onetime lawyer to the notorious Senator Joe McCarthy does a lot more than simply excoriate this poster boy for American greed and hypocrisy. Cohn is a creep, but not a one-dimensional villain. He is a pathetic and sometimes likable figure – one part kindly mentor, one part pure skeeze. When Cohn appears to comfort a closeted gay Republican attorney (Patrick Wilson), he really seems to care – except he can't seem to remove his hand from the handsome young lawyer's shoulder. Later, he confronts the possibly real, possibly imaginary ghost of the possibly innocent Ethel Rosenberg (Meryl Streep), who he helped execute alongside her husband, Julius, in 1953. The two old enemies trade sharp-witted barbs, ping-ponging between enmity and something resembling friendship – a not dissimilar relationship to the one he shares with Jeffrey Wright as his flamboyantly gay, outspokenly leftist nurse who helps him out of a sense of duty – and a desire to grab Cohn's cache of contraband AZT. Playing this sad, brilliant, and highly unpleasant character, Pacino hides nothing and makes no effort to be anything other than what he is, he simply lets Cohn suffer and rage.


"Bang the Drum Slowly" (1973)
Bang the Drum SlowlyIt doesn't get much further from "Taxi Driver" or "Goodfellas" than this. After years of semi-obscurity, Robert De Niro first attracted mainstream attention in this sentimental adaptation of one of Mark Harris's popular baseball novels. De Niro is Bruce Pearson, a sweet-natured simpleton of a catcher dying of cancer and trying to keep his illness a secret with the help of his world-wise pitcher buddy (Michael Moriarity, "Law & Order"). This sports tearjerker, somewhat clumsily directed by John D. Hancock, is frankly the kind of flick that turns up on The Hallmark Channel, but the folksy material is saved by an unusually strong cast, including Oscar-nominated character actor Vincent Gardenia ("Moonstruck," "All in the Family") as the crusty-but-benign coach. However, it's the not coequal friendship between Moriarity and De Niro that is at the center of the film, and it's difficult to say which of these two extraordinary actors gives a better performance. And that's the point. There's no scene stealing, and Moriarity and De Niro's many scenes together show the kind of team playing that keeps the film from devolving into complete mush. Of course, it was De Niro who had the more overtly emotional part, so it was De Niro who got his first major award (from New York City film critics) for this sweet and simple performance. And that's how major careers get started.

"Mean Streets" (1973)
Mean StreetsIf only because it launched the career of Martin Scorsese and cemented De Niro's rep as a young actor rapidly on the rise, this extraordinary but relatively little-seen tale of young men on the fringes of Little Italy's underworld would be a major contender for the most important entry in the entire De Niro filmography. On its own, however, it's one of the actor's strongest, most electric performances in one of his greatest films. De Niro's "irrepressible" Johnny Boy is a thorn in the side of his serious, conscience-stricken numbers-runner cousin and best pal, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) – so much so that he's seriously endangering Charlie's reputation by refusing to pay his rapidly growing debt to a loan shark (Richard Romanus). With a rather extreme case of ADHD, Johnny Boy would be little more than a terrible pain-in-the-ass if he weren't so magnetic and funny, and the 30-year-old De Niro manages to combine frenetic anything-can-happen energy with massive little-boy charm and vulnerability. We understand why poor Charlie would be put up with the troubles generated by his irritating loose cannon of a friend, even to the point of putting his own life at risk. "The Godfather: Part II" made him a major star, but the cult of Robert De Niro begins here.

"New York, New York" (1977)
New York, New YorkMartin Scorsese's tale of a doomed relationship between De Niro as a greedy, womanizing sax player, and Liza Minnelli as an ambitious singer, attempts to combine the artificial aesthetics of classic-era Hollywood romances and musicals with 70s realism. It's an uncomfortable mix, and the film would be all but forgotten if Frank Sinatra hadn't turned the title song into a major hit a few years later. Still, this variation on "A Star is Born" has a lot to recommend it to more patient viewers, and De Niro's performance is part of it. It's an unusually blunt performance; there's no attempt to soften the many unattractive qualities of saxophonist Jimmy Doyle and his maltreatment, bordering on abuse, of singer Francine Evans – though perhaps "New York, New York" would be more watchable film if there was. Francine is no doormat, and so, despite their obvious sexual chemistry, the marriage ends. When they meet again several years later, however, De Niro's character has changed dramatically, but also believably. A brief scene, with only perfunctory dialogue, between Jimmy and his son makes it poignantly clear that he has, in fact, finally learned to care about people other than himself. Working with a nonprofessional child actor, De Niro brings such reality to the brief scene that we actually start to feel bad that the once easy-to-hate Jimmy Doyle will never reunite with his family. What could have been rank manipulation instead becomes one of the most affecting scenes of De Niro's career.

"The King of Comedy" (1982)
King of ComedyAfter cementing his growing stature as an ultra-tough soldier in "The Deer Hunter" and a super-macho prize fighter in "Raging Bull," De Niro gave one of his most indelible performances as a vengeful dork in by far his strangest film yet with Martin Scorsese – a bizarre, suspenseful, and very truthful look at the allure of show business. Sporting Brylcreamed hair and a mustache more appropriate to the Catskills circa 1963 than early 80s Manhattan, De Niro's Rupert Pupkin is an aspiring comic with only one significant relationship in his life – his obsession with Jerry Langford (venomous Jerry Lewis), a Johnny Carson-like late night talk show host. Aside from that, there's just the set he's built in his basement where he conducts an imaginary talk show; Masha (Sandra Bernhard), an equally psychotic fangirl who's more enemy than friend; and the disembodied voice of his mother (the late Catherine Scorsese, aka Marty's hilarious mom). Thoroughly delusional, Rupert's plan for achieving stardom involves some very unpleasant encounters with his increasingly livid idol, culminating in a plot to kidnap the host with just one demand: put Rupert on "The Jerry Langford Show" or there'll be no more Jerry Langford. The dynamics of what happens when Rupert finds himself face to face with the object of his veneration and hate are both mortifying and strangely true to life. De Niro's complete commitment to a character who never relates to his environment ensures the film's success as a genuinely unusual hybrid – half black comedy, half emotional horror show.

"Brazil" (1985)
BrazilHe might sport an absurd mustache, but Archibald "Harry" Tuttle is a far cry from Rupert Pupkin – or any other human you've ever seen on screen. The hooded, heroically swashbuckling repairman strikes a blow against a repressive Orwellian/Kafkaesque futuristic state every time he fixes a duct without the proper documentation. Though he plays a crucial role in the plot, such as it is, Harry has only a few moments of screen time in Terry Gilliam's fanciful but depressive cult classic, swooping in and out of the life of hapless functionary Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) whose apartment has become unlivable due to an air conditioning malfunction and the handiwork of some ill-tempered disrepairmen (Bob Hoskins and Derrick O'Connor). When asked why he spends his life repairing ducts, the answer is simple: "I came into this game for the action, the excitement. Go anywhere, travel light, get in, get out, wherever there's trouble, a man alone." One part Clark Gable, one part Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, De Niro delivers his absurdist lines with clarity and energetic directness – as if he was giving important traffic information. The contrast makes for high comedy and one of the few real moments of brightness in the pathetic life of the film's sad, wildly naive hero.

"Stanley & Iris" (1990)
Stanley & IrisThis awkward combination of gentle social realism and romantic fantasy from director Martin Ritt ("Hud," "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold") is notable for two reasons. First, this tale of the illiterate, middle-aged Stanley who is taught to read and write by a beautiful blue-collar widow (Jane Fonda), helped spearhead the literacy campaigns championed by more than one First Lady. Second, it is the first of several of the actor's later films in which he parts company with the laser-like intensity of most of his earlier characters and relaxes somewhat. Not that his Stanley doesn't have his share of problems, even apart from illiteracy. As the story makes abundantly clear, Stanley is immensely more intelligent than the dimwitted ballplayer from "Bang the Drum Slowly," and he's plenty complicated. Still, Stanley's only real problem is the opposite of that faced by Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, Jake La Motta and especially Johnny Boy. He has his share of foolish pride, but like many of us, he lacks a sense of genuine confidence. By the end of the film, he's improved considerably in this regard – sleeping with Jane Fonda will do that for a guy. However, while the film's story is more than a little contrived, the evolution of Stanley from good-guy loser to fully contributing member of society seems natural enough. It's a relaxed performance that owes less to the method intensity of Marlon Brando and more to the no-nonsense grace of Spencer Tracy. It's a step forward.

"Mad Dog and Glory" (1993)
Mad Dog and GloryWhen his colleagues call New York homicide detective Wayne Dobie "Mad Dog," they're being sarcastic. He's an unusually gentle and solitary soul for one of New York's Finest, and his passion is photography, not tracking down killers. Things get weird when he saves the life of Frank Milo (Bill Murray), a psychotic gangster who moonlights as a psychotic stand-up comic. After a night of drunken not-quite-bonding, a grateful Milo sends over Glory (Uma Thurman), a gorgeous bartender-cum-indentured servant, with orders to stay with him for a week, or else. Since sexual slavery hasn't been legal for a very long time, this puts Wayne in a difficult position. Written by novelist Richard Price and directed by John McNaughton ("Wild Things") this is an odd little comedy, and De Niro's low-key performance as the ultimately heroic Wayne is completely relatable, though imperfect. We never quite buy his shy romance with Glory. It's more than the obvious age difference, it's that it's unclear why the tough but vulnerable young woman would feel so inclined toward the under-confident and seemingly half-hearted Stanley. On the other hand, Wayne's non-friendship with psycho Frank Milo plays perfectly. If you've ever found yourself with an unwanted "new best friend," the one-sided dynamic between Murray and De Niro feels all too familiar. The irony here is that the underconfident cop might be the one in danger, but he never really loses the emotional upper hand over the usually assured hood, who really just wants a buddy.

"This Boy's Life" (1993)
This Boys LifeBy this point in Robert De Niro's career, he had portrayed plenty of men you'd be better off avoiding, including Satan. Still, in the safety of your living room or a movie theater, movie bad men often seem like they'd be interesting to get to know. You wouldn't say that, however, about the obnoxious and utterly banal Dwight Hansen, who makes the life of a rebellious adolescent (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his desperate mother (Ellen Barkin) a living hell in this highly watchable adaptation of Tobias Wolff's memoir. Sporting an inexplicable sing-song accent, stepdad Dwight bears a trace of Rupert Pupkin as he tries hard to appear considerate and ingratiating, but his efforts are so obvious that no one seems to buy them for long. Realizing he's held in contempt, Dwight has only one strategy: try to make those around him as miserable as he is. If mockery doesn't work on a victim, he might resort to physical abuse, but the main idea is to make others feel as small as Dwight's bigoted worldview. You could call this performance one-dimensional, but it drives the movie and De Niro makes the most of a truly outstanding scene partner in teenage Leonardo DiCaprio as the victimized future author. In fact, the older actor seems wholly aware that this is DiCaprio's movie and he glories in being, for once, not a complicated antihero, but merely a memorable villain.

"Wag the Dog" (1997)
Jackie BrownBarry Levinson and David Mamet's satire, about a phony U.S. war staged to distract attention from a Presidential sex scandal, seemed prescient on its initial release and, though it's been years since the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, seems even more so today (three words: Iraq war intelligence). While Dustin Hoffman's performance (as a hilariously egotistical/insecure movie impresario who is hired to "produce" a war with Albania) received an almost automatic Oscar nomination, De Niro's serene, pitch-perfect portrayal of a supremely self-controlled, utterly amoral political super-consultant is the heart of this tense black comedy. Sporting a hat, scraggly beard and an unbecoming mole, consultant Conrad Brean is the ultimate professional. He's the calm center of the storm, with an avuncular manner that underscores his complete absence of any personal malice towards any human. He seemingly has no ego at all, just an unshakeable commitment to getting his job done correctly. If constantly praising the sensitive Stanley will help grease the wheels, no problem. If the C.I.A. almost torpedoes the whole immoral campaign, he's forgiving once the crisis has passed. ("Nice enough people... they just hadn't thought it through.") But the people he works with, from Anne Heche's weak-kneed White House assistant to Kirsten Dunst as a young actress, distressed to learn she'll be killed if she adds her latest gig to her resume, are ultimately tools and nothing else. Ever so placid, De Niro reminds us that it's easy to be calm and affable when you don't care about people.

"Jackie Brown" (1997)
Jackie BrownIf this seriously underrated, laid-back yet suspenseful adaptation of Elmore Leonard's "Rum Punch" had been written and directed by anyone other than Quentin Tarantino, the part of the usually affable, frequently stoned career criminal, Louis Gara, would have probably gone to someone a lot less famous – and in this case that would have been a damn shame. As the ex-con flunky of deadly, N- and MF-word spouting arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson, naturally), De Niro seems in a Zen state – completely unconscious of being Robert De Niro. Wearing a prison-issue mustache and mullet, his Louis just naturally blends into the background, allowing Ordell to handle important matters while he and Melanie (Bridget Fonda), Ordell's beach bunny concubine, smoke a lot of reefer, have some spectacularly bad sex, and bicker. Still, there's more to Louis than that, and it all comes down to one explosively funny and shocking scene with Melanie in a shopping center parking lot. It's a tribute to the carefully layered nature of De Niro's performance – and the perfectly worked out chemistry between him and Bridget Fonda – that this crucial moment actually make sense to the audience. In this brilliantly developed character role, De Niro proves that, had he never met up with Martin Scorsese or Francis Coppola, the non-superstar Robert De Niro would still likely have been a perfectly spectacular working actor. That's actually the highest praise we've got.

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