Stand Up Guys is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Stuck somewhere between a geriatric sub Apatow production and 70s crime drama, it’s lost perilously at sea with a precious cargo of acting royalty desperately trying to steer around an iceberg. Despite pulling in the same direction, they go down with the ship. The S.S. Good Riddance. Directed by Fisher Stevens and penned by Noah Haidle, the film has at its centre an interesting premise but tonally it’s all off beam. Twenty-eight years after a job that went badly wrong, Valentine or “Val” to his friends (Al Pacino) is released from prison and into the welcoming arms of his former partner in crime Doc (Christopher Walken). Having served half a lifetime after a stray bullet accidentally ended the life of their bosses only son, Val is keen to make up for lost time, lost steak and lost sex. He’s acutely aware however that his time is limited and is expecting a hit on behalf of his still grieving boss. The bullet he’s expecting is due to be expelled by the gun hidden in his old friend Doc’s pocket, something Val also suspects.
With Alan Arkin joining an already illustrious cast and a premise that sets up so much, the film still somehow disappoints. The comedy is absolutely dire and produced just one laugh (admittedly a large one) in the entire 95 minute runtime. Time that could have been spent creating dramatic tension or allowing the great actors to spit thick, gloopy dialogue is instead devoted to nob gags and wave after wave of “Oh aren’t we old” jokes. I don’t know who is supposed to be enjoying it. If you’re young and have no love for the actors then it doesn’t work. If you’re young and have a great affinity for the actors then it’s simply sad and embarrassing and if you’re older then you just aren’t going to be interested in the Viagra stealing, Russian prostitute visiting humour. This is a movie aimed at fifteen year old fans of forty year old movies. A lot of movies have been produced recently which try to put a twist on the frat boy comedy by introducing an older cast but it’s just uncomfortable. Seeing Michael Corleone, Sonny Wortzik, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, Frank Serpico, Tony Montana, bloody Al ‘8 Oscar nominations and 1 win’ Pacino pretending to go to hospital because he can’t get rid of an erection? No. Just stop it. Enough.
Buried deep inside the movie is a great film that struggles to find its place. There’s a nice side plot featuring Christopher Walken’s family and the reliving of the old days round a table is something that has legs. Even the brief forays back into crime have their moments but it’s all coated in a sugary yet sanitized sheen that feels cold and impregnable. The dialogue thankfully has its moments. “They say we die twice. Once when the breath leaves our body, and once when the last person we know says our name” is a nice line but it’s joined by the likes of “Oh Ouh! Mount Everest just moved into my pants.” The mix of comedy and drama unsettles the piece, leaving it wobbly at every turn. Accompanying the picture is a score which just sits on top of the movie rather than intertwining to form one piece of art. It feels like you have a score with a movie playing underneath rather than a movie score. The funk and soul music sounds great but it doesn’t work with the visuals of the film even though it’s very purposely chosen to evoke the era at which the characters were at their height.
The movie appears to have been shot around the same two blocks and it feels very samey and claustrophobic. Even with a modest budget of $15m, you’d think the production could have stretched to a couple more locations. We seem to travel down the same street over and over again. Perhaps it was this repetitiveness and maybe the fact that it’s mostly shot at night that reminded me so much of Scorsese’s fantastic (and underappreciated) After Hours. Although the production lacks visual scope, overall the cinematography is fine. There’s a car chase which has been seen a thousand times and there’s nothing particularly new about the way it’s shot but it’s accomplished. On the acting front, the two leads veer between barely trying and struggling to make something of the thing. Both Walken and Pacino are uneven but there are glimpses of their great talent dotted throughout which makes the finished product even more disappointing. I realise roles are few and far between for some of the greats of the Hollywood New Wave but sometimes I wish they’d just say no. I love to see the likes of Walken, Pacino, Arkn and De Niro on screen and they can still impress but those great moments are becoming scarcer.
Overall Stand Up Guys is a let down. There’s enough in there that I feel as though I haven’t wasted my time but I feel disappointed with a script that had potential and a cast that can do so much more given the chance. While we can’t expect every Pacino film to be Serpico and we can’t expect Walken to make a Deer Hunter every year, one still can’t help but want something more from a movie and from these actors. The movie's tag line helps to sum it all up. 'They don't make 'em like they used to'.