To everything there is a season, even for Hollywood superstars such as Robert De Niro. Having starred in some of the best and most memorable American films of the 20th century, De Niro has remained enthroned in the Hollywood kingdom — but the time when he can walk into any scene and take immediate command has passed. Now it seems that every time you catch him in a movie, he grows more eccentric and cantankerous, the creases on his face falling into crevasses. He’s even got a King Lear sheen to him: As royalty, people respect him. But do they love him? Not likely. He’d be more lovable otherwise.
Still, there’s no denying that at 69, he’s a powerhouse performer who works at the prolific pace of three or four movies a year, though many of these are small roles. “Freelancers” is from the crop of 2012, and in the United States it sadly got onto the fast track from postproduction to the DVD pile in the sky. Either De Niro is extremely magnanimous or extremely undiscriminating (or as Roger Ebert once suggested, in financial trouble), because in this past decade, many of his movie picks have been questionable to say the least (“Little Fockers” anyone?). See him loom on screen in “Freelancers,” and the experience is similar to walking into a ramen joint and having the waiter serve foie gras on a silver platter.
On the other hand, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker joins him in the endeavor, so at least he’s not alone. Not that Whitaker or even De Niro have much say in this sordid little package that illicits sighs of regret and weariness. Directed by Jessy Terrero, “Freelancers” elbows out the iconic Hollywood greats to focus on a single guy: Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. I know I’m old, but I’ve never really understood why it’s not 50 cents, plural and lowercase.
Anyway, Jackson takes charge of this ship, and no one else is allowed near the wheel. Not only does he dominate almost every frame, he plays a vicious, sneaky, prostitute-mongering cop named Malo, and he’s so atrocious that after about 20 minutes you wish he’d fall down a Manhattan manhole and wallow in sludge with discarded reptilian pets.
De Niro plays Joe Sarcone, an NYPD cop who’s so corrupt Sodom and Gomorrah pales in comparison. As soon as Malo graduates from the police academy (there are rumors that he got into the academy only because he bedded the wife of a judicial official) and shows up for the job, Sarcone takes him under his wing and shows him the ropes, which consist primarily of taking bribes, suppressing or destroying evidence and sleeping with prostitutes while on duty. In fact, Malo takes off his uniform so often you forget he actually works for the law. Or actually works.
Whitaker isn’t much better. He plays veteran cop LaRue, whose primary interest in life is snorting grade-A cocaine confiscated from dealers, and then faking the police report. Malo learns plenty from these two, and together with his academy buddies A.D. (Malcolm Goodwin) and Lucas (Ryan O’Nan), the trio have a fine old time doing very bad stuff. There are some flirting scenes between Malo and his long-time semi-girlfriend Cyn (Anabelle Acosta), but any feelings he has for her never get in the way of being a violent, lying, scheming, drug-pilfering letch.
It would have helped the movie immeasurably if Jackson had been good at what he’s doing. But one of the lessons the movie teaches you is that it takes some genuine talent to be a scumbag, as De Niro has demonstrated through time immemorial. Apparently, that never rubbed off on rapper Jackson on set. As an actor, he’s great at shedding his police uniform and stepping into the shower in a seedy hotel, but that routine gets tired very soon.
What remains in the end is the conviction that director Terrero really has it in for the NYPD. His apparent deep, dark dislike informs the shooting location, which isn’t New York at all (or even the favorite fake location spot, Toronto) but New Orleans, and is about as convincing as a $10 toupee. This may not be the worst movie De Niro has starred in, but you know, it sure feels close.