Val (Al Pacino), a retired gangster, has been released from prison after serving twenty-eight years. He was sentenced for a death that was in fact accidental, but because he was then and remains now a stand up guy, he kept his mouth shut, and he took the fall. After being released, he reunites with his best friend Doc (Christopher Walken), also a retired gangster and Val’s former associate. He too is a stand up guy; he helps Val along as he tries to catch up on all the heedless fun he has missed out on. This would include taking him to a bar, bringing him back to the brothel they once frequented, and breaking into a pharmacy and stealing a prescription of Viagra when he’s unable to perform at the brothel. Doc doesn’t reveal that, at the insistence of a deeply embittered crime boss named Claphands (Mark Margolis), he has twenty-four hours to execute Val.
Val knew such a day was coming, just as he knew Doc was the one ordered to kill him. He doesn’t blame Doc one bit. A job is a job, after all, and if their positions were reversed, Val would actually go through with it. Val doesn’t want to die, of course, and Doc sure as hell doesn’t want to kill his best friend. What can either of them do, especially since its now the middle of the night and only about nine hours remain? Running isn’t an option for Val; he would eventually be found, and besides, he doesn’t want to abandon Doc. He would much rather stay and say goodbye. In staying, he wants to live it up the best way he knows how – by stealing a sports car belonging to a pair of degenerate thugs, rescuing his other best friend and stand up guy, Hirsch (Alan Arkin), from a nursing home, and allowing him to revisit his glory days as a getaway driver.
Like a Hemingway novel, “Stand Up Guys” relies on simplicity to speak volumes about the characters and the plot. There are no extraneous lines of dialogue, no needless clarifications, no long-winded setups or drawn-out resolutions; everything is clear and to the point. Although this cinematic environment is sparse, it’s nevertheless conducive to the development of the three leads. The each say something, and we immediately understand them. More important, we know that they understand each other. In the midst of their tomfoolery, an unspoken but clearly evident sense of fatalism passes between them. Part of this stems from the obvious fact that they’re past their prime. Mostly, however, it stems from the fact that they’ve lived their lives as gangsters, and as such, their pasts would inevitably catch up with them. One can’t expect to live this way without any ramifications.
Although the film is very much a crime movie, shootouts and fistfights strategically placed all throughout, director Fisher Stevens and screenwriter Noah Haidle see to it that it’s also a compelling character study. They never let the material get too funny, but they also don’t let it get too serious; it’s a balancing act of tone, one they prove themselves capable of performing. There are, for example, several heartfelt scenes in a diner Doc repeatedly visits, in large part because of a charming young waitress named Alex (Addison Timlin). Here is a place where he can reflect on his broken family, his daughter having severed all ties with him, his granddaughter remaining undiscovered. There’s also a surprisingly truthful scene between Doc, Val, and Hirsch’s daughter, a paramedic named Nina (Julianna Margulies).
Conversely, there are some very funny scenes. A select few border border on slapstick, as when Val is in the emergency room and has to be treated for his Viagra overdose. Many are smaller moments, like when Val and Hirsch marvel at push-button car ignitions, or when they interact with the slightly goofy owner of the aforementioned brothel (Lucy Punch). She happens to be the daughter of the former owner, a woman the three men knew quite well. An example of brutal humor can be found in a subplot involving a woman named Sylvia (Vanessa Ferlito), who the men find tied up, gagged, and naked in the trunk of the stolen sports car. The men may not know who she is, but they do know that she was kidnapped and raped by lowlifes, and that such people need to suffer the consequences of their actions. Let it not be said that Val, Doc, and Hirsch don’t live up to the film’s title.
I will end on a digression. As of the date this review was written and published, “Stand Up Guys” has earned a 31% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the consensus being that it “wastes its talented cast in a resolutely mediocre comedy hampered by messy direction and a perfunctory script.” Did I see the same movie? The more I try to consider it from that opposite perspective, the more confused and frustrated I become. God forbid I was made to actually care about the characters and the story they inhabit. When it comes to crime movies of this nature, I fear the possibility that audiences can no longer tolerate character development, plot, and theme, that they simply want to be assaulted with wall-to-wall stunts and relentless violence. I eagerly await the time when my fears will be put to rest.