Despite the flaws of "Stand Up Guys," and there are several, it achieves the rare and underrated feat of creating a tone all its own. The aging stars — Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin — are familiar names with long careers and lives that have lasted more than 220 combined years. They all play retired gangsters with a strange mix of sadness and verve and regret and affection. "Stand Up Guys" hits these varied notes, often in combination, by pacing itself, letting dialogue unspool and taking itself just seriously enough, as a melancholy crime farce that most people probably won't care for. Their loss.
Pacino is Val, just paroled after 28 years in prison. Picking him up at the gate is Walken as Doc, another old crook who has quit the life voluntarily, content now to paint sunrises in his modest bachelor apartment. Val, naturally, is ready for the first day on the outside — women, drugs, dancing, steak — but knows that because of the way their last caper went down, the job he took the fall for, a vindictive boss named Claphands (a viperous Mark Margolis) won't let him live long.
We know early on that it's Doc who has to do the dirty work on this one, Claphands' way of twisting the knife in both of them. But the early going in "Stand Up Guys" shuffles along without much purpose. It's hard to get a movie moving when it's premised on age, on fatigue. Pacino plays Val, all hedgehog hair and prison tattoos, with a fatalistic aplomb, as the guy at the bar you hope will leave before picking a fight. He overdoses on boner pills and crushes up hypertension meds to snort. He's not someone you want to watch for 93 minutes.
Then he admits to Doc that he knows he's doomed, and as that grim thought constricts around them both, the story turns from first night back in the world to last night on earth. They decide to reconnect with their old associate Hirsch, played by Arkin, and chase low adventures, always with at least a twinge of malaise. When Hirsch stumbles out of a cathouse, having fulfilled a longtime supposed fantasy, he looks morose. "I've never stepped out on my wife before," the widower says. Even on the night of their lives, the moment can't compete against the memory.
"Stand Up Guys" is too juvenile to be high art, and director Fischer Stevens, whose only other feature-length film is "Just a Kiss," hasn't exactly reinvented "Goodfellas" here. But it feels curiously authentic. Pacino and Arkin are fine, of course, while Walken, who has been playing retired gangsters at least since 1997's "Suicide Kings," brings a strange tenderness to his role. "Stand Up Guys" probably wouldn't have worked without these three leads, and it's arguable that it does even with them. But it at least carries a real sense of finality about it. The characters don't know how they're going to go, exactly, but they all know it's soon. The same could be said for guys still working into their 70s and beyond.
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