LITTLE ROCK When I found out at the last minute that I was going to have a chance to screen Fisher Stevens’ Stand Up Guys, a fellow critic noted that could be a mixed blessing, since primary stars Al Pacino and Christopher Walken seem susceptible to participating in unpromising gangster comedies.
That’s true, I allowed, but I pointed out that Stand Up Guys also stars Alan Arkin, and - as far as I can tell - Alan Arkin still reads scripts. So I went in mildly hopeful.
And that mild hope was rewarded, though not for the reasons I thought. Though it has been floating around Hollywood for a few years, and drawn some praise from insiders and would-be insiders, Noah Haidle’s screenplay is pretty derivative and hackneyed. At the film’s beginning, Val (Pacino) is getting out of prison after serving 28 years for a killing for which he might or might not have been directly responsible (because he is, you see, a “stand up guy”).
And his former colleague Doc (Walken) has been waiting for him for all this time, painting his landscapes and looking for the granddaughter his estranged daughter doesn’t want him to find. You see, they have one last job to pull - one last night to ride.
Stand Up Guys is a lot like a lot of movies you’ve seen before. And Val and Doc aren’t so different from the aging hood Burt Lancaster played in 1980’s Atlantic City.
Actually, a better comparison might be to the forgettable Tough Guys (1986), in which Lancaster and Kirk Douglas played retirement age ex-cons trying to go straight, or the truly execrable The Crew from 2000. Doc and Val are the kind of lovable old monsters that Hollywood enjoys sentimentalizing, and in some respects Stand Up Guys is a bunch of bromantic hooey with no real relation to how things are in the real world. Yet it’s populated by a trio of fine actors (though Arkin joins in for only half an hour or so) who elevate what otherwise might be an unbearably hackneyed script.
Stevens, better known as a character actor and documentarian (he co-produced the 2010 Oscar winner The Cove), seems to have understood what he was getting into. His movie is all casting - the female roles are small but deftly sketched by the likes of Lucy Punch, Vanessa Ferlito and Julianna Margulies - and atmosphere, a kind of pocket version of Mean Streets.
Despite the ordinary plot and stretches of routine dialogue (the best line is, believe it or not, a quote from John Carpenter’s They Live, a line made immortal by Rowdy Roddy Piper), the movie is essentially a showcase for the old pros, who are able to convey more through their body language than their would-be hard-boiled lines.
Walken, in particular, is ginger-limbed and achy. He makes his Doc a great arthritic bird, a shambling, broken- down host for pain. And Pacino, while he obviously enjoys the taste of scenery, manages to impart a note of dingy desperation to his doomed soldier.
Except for the inevitable Viagra joke and a late-model Dodge Charger, Stand Up Guys could pass for a film set - or shot - in the 1970s. There are few cell phones or computers in the film, the palette is muted, the film is just over 90 minutes and all the actors - well, most of the actors - play it straight and allow the comedy to derive from the situation. It’s hardly great, but it’s refreshingly old school.
Stand Up Guys 86 Cast: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin, Lucy Punch, Vanessa Ferlito, Julianna Margulies, Mark Margolis Director: Fisher Stevens Rating: R, for sexual content, language and some drug use Running time: 95 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 02/01/2013
Print Headline: Stand Up Guys