Stand Up Guys
You’ve gotta love a good, gritty crime film like some of the great, pulpy action films of the ’70s. Occasionally you see a good homage to them — Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown comes to mind — but it’s rare to see anything really new and interesting done with one. And that’s what makes Stand Up Guys such a charmer. Instead of making a straight-up genre exercise, director Fisher Stevens uses Noah Haidle’s story to take a different look back at that era.
Almost thirty years ago — from exactly when isn’t ever quite made clear and doesn’t matter; it was somewhere in the ’70s or early ’80s — a robbery went wrong. The crime boss, Claphands (Mark Margolis), sent his son in on the job and he got caught in the crossfire. Val (Al Pacino) was a stand up guy, so he took the fall for everyone and went into prison.
But Claphands is the vindictive sort. He let Val serve every day of his sentence, and put a hit out on him for the day he was released, to be executed by Val’s best friend, Doc (Christopher Walken). Doc picks up Val from the prison, and Val understands what’s coming. By the next morning the deed must be done, but they can have one last night in a town that doesn’t look to have changed all that much from the day he went in.
So they pick up their old getaway driver, Hirsch (Alan Arkin), and a big, black muscle car, and set off to paint the town red. They visit the old whorehouse, now run by the former madame’s daughter (Lucy Punch); they pass through the emergency room, where Hirsch’s daughter (Juliana Margulies) works as a nurse; they exact revenge on a gang of lowlifes on behalf of a wronged woman (Vanessa Ferlito). And as they cross-cross the city they keep ending up at a diner, chatting with the friendly waitress (Addison Timlin).
A lot of the humor comes out of the fact that these guys are, in fact, getting on in age. Doc may be retired to a life of painting sunrises and watching cable television, but he remembers how to pick a lock to break into a pharmacy and refill his Nexium prescription. There’s a lot of conversation about how things used to be, or whether the guys have lost a step since the old days. And of course there’s some fumbling with the concept of a car with a push-button start.
The film looks gorgeous, with a lovely, grainy texture straight out of the era it emulates. A handful of references are current-day, but by and large everything looks like its been pulled straight from the 1970s. And the soundtrack brings the funk and soul to back up the visuals.
Just as Doc and Val can still bring it like they used to, Walken and Pacino have not been slowed down by their age. If anything they’ve settled into comfortable styles, and it’s a joy to see them onscreen with each other — paired off, that is; we’ll ignore Gigli. They have a wonderful chemistry, and Pacino’s energy lines up perfectly with Walken’s more laconic delivery. And Stevens knows enough from his background as an actor to stand back and let these two guys do what they do best, and what we love them for.
They don’t make stand up guys like Doc and Val anymore. They don’t make actors like Walken and Pacino anymore. And, by and large, they don’t make films like Stand Up Guys anymore, if they truly ever did.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.