What the heck happened? The cinematic decline of Robert De Niro

Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, and Michael Douglas in "Last Vegas." (CBS Films)

Do you remember when “Last Vegas” star Robert De Niro made good movies? You know, movies like “The Godfather: Part II,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” “Heat,” and “Jackie Brown.” Bona fide classics that were made a very long time ago.

Not to knock De Niro’s excellent recent work in “Limitless” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” but the legendary actor and two-time Oscar winner hasn’t exactly had the most stellar decade or so. Starting with 2000’s “The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle” and capping off with 2011’s “New Year’s Eve,” De Niro’s recent career has been a far cry from his heyday in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. Sure, there were a few bright spots, but for every decent movie like the “The Score,” there was a “Godsend,” a “Killer Elite,” or another “Meet the Parents” sequel.

Robert De Niro (with Jason Alexander and Rene Russo) in "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle." (Universal)

Come 2013, though, it seemed like this year was going to be a different. De Niro started the year off by nabbing a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in David O. Russell’s mental illness drama “Silver Linings Playbook.” Moviegoers were excited by the actor again; the old Bobby was back!

...Then the rest of the year happened. It’s been a particularly forgettable one for De Niro, punctuated by stinkers like “The Big Wedding,” “Killing Season,” and “The Family,” and things don’t really look like they’re going to improve much with the upcoming “Hangover” knock-off “Last Vegas.”

So, when and why did De Niro’s decline start?

Most people point to “Analyze This,” De Niro’s first big foray into comedy, as a turning point for his career. It’s not fair to call that movie the start of the decline, though. De Niro was hilarious opposite Billy Crystal, riffing on the tough mafia types he’d played so many times in the past. For what it was, “Analyze This” was a pretty good movie. But it was at that point that the studios, and perhaps De Niro himself, realized that there was a market for comedies starring the acclaimed actor. Hollywood had found their new dour straight man.

As the comic roles kept coming, De Niro continued to play tough talkin' roles: Cops, mobsters, pirates, politicians, captains of industry, etc. However, it was sometime during this period that De Niro began to become a parody of himself. As it turns out, poking fun at your tough guy past kind of undercuts the tough guy act. It's not that De Niro wasn't doing good work, it's that not much good work was really coming his way.

De Niro with Jacki Weaver and Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook." (The Weinstein Company)

It's also safe to say that age has played some role in De Niro's decline. Now 70 years old, the actor has mellowed (only slightly) in his old age. While he's still an intense on-screen presence, the De Niro audiences saw in movies like "Stardust" and "Righteous Kill" wasn't the same fiery, downright scary actor they saw in "The Untouchables" or "Cape Fear." It happens. People get old -- even Bobby D.

De Niro's put in his time doing physically and mentally demanding method roles. Now he's probably just trying to enjoy the work he does. Hitting up Las Vegas with other acting greats like Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline for "Last Vegas" sounds like fun to us. Can you really blame him?

Still, we'd love to see at least one more great collaboration between De Niro and director Martin Scorsese, because they are one of the greatest actor/filmmaker duos in cinema history. There's been talk of re-team for several years now, on Scorsese's in-development films "The Irishman" or "Sinatra," but nothing has been made official. Given their amazing track record together, it would almost certainly end De Niro's recent slump.

"Last Vegas" hits theatres on Nov. 1.