Fisher Stevens’ sophomore feature-length, Stand Up Guys, is a bitter-sweet and sentimental story about an ex-stickup man trying to get the best out of the remainder of his life, after being released from prison to find out his old partner has been assigned to kill him.
Valentine, or Val as he likes to be known, played by Al Pacino, has just been released from prison after 28 years, which he served for accidentally killing mob-boss Claphands’ son. Waiting to meet him at the gates of the prison is his old crime-buddy Doc, played by Christopher Walken. What Val soon finds out is that Claphands has told Doc that, in order to save his own life, he must kill Val. And so Val, Doc and their old wheelguy Hirsch, played by Alan Arkin, who they pick up from a nursing home, go on a series of escapades in order to feel alive again before that dreadful moment.
This film is at its best when it is serious. There are moments, in cafés and on late-night strolls through the city, when Val and Doc take the time to talk about past jobs and the lives they used to lead. And I don’t think these moments would work as well with any random old guys playing them. They work because it’s Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, two men that have lived so many lives on screen, two men that, just like Val and Doc, are in the twilight of their careers. These moments work so well because the roles of Val and Doc are so similar to the roles that they’ve played throughout their career, that it almost feels like it’s Pacino and Walken reminiscing about their life’s work, and it makes the hair stand up at the back of your neck.
Overall, the script is not that great but, as you would expect, Pacino, Walken and Arkin make it work – mostly. With such vast experience between them, the trio can pretty much make any character seem believable. But one thing that, if written badly, won’t work well – great actor or not – is comedy. Unfortunately, this film is not very funny. Contrasting those great sentimental moments I mentioned is terribly sad moments, such as the scene where you see Al Pacino sat on a hospital bed with a massive erection. And I say you see Al Pacino, not Val, because it’s Al Pacino. It’s Michael Corleone, Tony Montana and Vincent Hanna. And he’s sat there pretending that he has a massive erection, while Christopher Walken stands and watches the doctor assess it. This is not what I expected such great actors to be doing near the end of their careers, and I don’t know whether to be annoyed at them for taking the roles, or the writer for having the audacity of writing scenes like this.
With such sombre and heartbreaking highs and, for different reasons, sombre and heartbreaking lows, Stand Up Guys is a very polarizing film. But if you choose to forget the middle section, where sincerity is replaced with childish humour, and where Val’s imminent death seems to be forgotten, you might actually find that this film is quite touching.
by Tom Woodcock