There’s something about Stand Up Guys that’s both brilliant and poignant. The film, directed by Fisher Stevens and written by Noah Haidle, is the story of a group of men who reunite for a final night of depravity.
At the start of the movie, Val (Al Pacino,) is released from prison, after a 20-year jail sentence, into the company of Doc (Christopher Walken) and Hirsch (Alan Arkin), old friends and ex con men. The finality of their meeting is detailed in the beginning of the film. Doc has been commissioned by an old enemy to kill Val upon his release. About a third of the way into the movie, Val guesses Doc’s intention and accepts his fate. This choice completely diffuses any conflict the friends might have with each other. For the rest of the movie, the group trudges through Val’s last night, breaking Hirsch out of his nursing home. Even as Hirsch ditches his oxygen tank, which is bad ass, the movie clearly conveys the idea that these men are all on their deathbeds. Doc, pleading for Val’s life with the gangster who commissioned the assassination, even uses this as a reason for why he should be spared—Val’s old anyway and will die of natural causes within a “few years.”
There seem to be no stakes. Early in the film, Val reveals that he knows Doc’s objective and doesn’t mind. Hirsch’s death seems foretold by the decrepit state in which his friends find him at the nursing home and flatly accepted by all his loved ones once he passes. Their adventures lack any sort of tension or climactic movement. You have a group of characters working towards the same goal—a final night of fun before an execution—without any conflict.
It’s a buddy movie, a geriatric take on The Hangover or Dude, Where’s My Car?, but with even fewer obstacles to overcome.
What this vehicle does, however, is allow Walken, Pacino and Arkin to live with each other and the audience for a few hours. Walken and Pacino have stood so tall in 20th century American cinema that this film feels like a postcard from an old friend. Each of the actors essentially play themselves, and towards the end of the movie, it seems that “Doc” and “Val” disappear and we just get to watch Al Pacino and Christopher Walken hang out for a night together.
Pacino and Walken are so much themselves, and both have so much cultural currency, that the richness of their personalities transfers richness into the story in a way that wouldn’t happen with most other actors. Ultimately, this is a problem for the film—Stand Up Guys depends too much on the actors and not enough on story telling. It’s not the worse crime a film can commit, and at least it’s committed in good company.
Director: Fisher Stevens
Writer: Noah Haidle
Starring: Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Christopher Walken
Release Date: Feb. 1, 2013