It’s impossible to walk out of “Stand Up Guys” without doing an impersonation of William Hurt in “A History Of Violence,” pressing fingers to your temple and asking, “How do ya fuck that up?” It’s like stocking a team with proven performers and hoping that everything else will work itself out at the end, including a rickety script, indifferent direction, and a plot that pretends its final act is anything other than a cliché-hugging inevitability. As far as superstar combinations, “Stand Up Guys” is less the dramatic turnaround of the 2008 Boston Celtics, and more like the floundering 2013 Los Angeles Lakers.
Taking the fall for a criminal colleague by keeping his lips sealed, Val (Al Pacino) has just gotten out of prison after 28 years. Picking him up at the entrance is Doc (Christopher Walken), an old friend who greets his chatty buddy warmly as the two of them catch up, reuse old inside jokes, reminisce and largely acknowledge that both are living on borrowed time. There’s little to the early moments of this script beyond Val’s dark riffing on Doc’s close-quarters living arrangement. Doc’s learned to live within his means, while Val is struggling with the fact that he hasn’t learned much – it’s time to resume his roustabout ways, since his debt has been paid.
Most of whatever else passes for pathos comes from the gravity these two performers bring to the film. Walken’s performance captures the unease and reluctance one has when reuniting with an old loved one: there’s the temptation to become the person you once were. But Doc hasn’t been that person for a very long time, and so his discomfort stems from how much emotion he wants to show with his best friend, and how much he’s accustomed to showing the rest of the world. Walken underplays this beautifully: as Pacino does his Romper Room extroversion act, Walken can be seen controlling that famous smile, making sure he doesn’t remind himself of the darkness that clouds this arrangement.
As it turns out, Val’s on a hit list, and now that he’s freed from prison, Doc’s the one meant to pull the trigger. Crusty, bathrobe-wearing bad guy character actor Mark Margolis hasn’t forgotten his son eating a stray bullet from Val’s gun, and with the guillotine hanging over Doc’s head, the mission is clear. After some brief hijinks, Val correctly susses out that his friend is assigned to give him a dirt nap. The two actors dispense with this formality with a brief, pragmatic bit of character work that reveals a shorthand that comes from two professionals having lived multiple lives within their own high-pressure profession. Val and Doc, or Pacino and Walken.
Unfortunately, this spurs the bombastic Val to seize the night, the very last one he’ll ever enjoy. What follows is a series of misadventures where Val forces Doc to take on the city together as if they were four decades younger, fueled by alcohol, drugs and recklessness. You hope there will be some restraint when Val drags Doc to a middle class brothel run out of a musty townhouse by a gum-snapping urbanite played by the always-welcome Lucy Punch. Instead, Doc’s mournful reticence is interrupted by Val’s failure to perform, which then leads to a late-night visit to a pharmacy for some, ahem, intimacy enhancements. Gee, do you think it will backfire when Val takes too many? This is not a long movie, but the time spent on Al Pacino’s erection makes it feel like we’ve suddenly taken a trip to Middle Earth.
The two eventually look up old buddy Hirsch (Alan Arkin) and bust him out of a retirement home, which turns out to be the only thing keeping Hirsch from his old profession – jacking cars and racing down highways roads. The three joyride before an opportunity to shake down some young thugs rears its head, and suddenly, Pacino and Walken can move like they’re at least forty years younger.
As so it goes for “Stand Up Guys,” which episodically places these old codgers in situations that confirm what these characters seem to be saying in one variation or another, that being, “Things ain’t what they used to be.” And those brief early moments, providing the pleasure of seeing these old guys crack wise, soon give way to violent slapstick and tawdry scenarios that cast an apocalyptic vibe over the proceedings, as if the world took a night off to allow these dinosaurs one more chance to rule the earth. All the while, Doc, who has found a calling with regular diner meals and days quietly spent in front of an easel, longs to avoid his assignment, until a far-fetched third act contrivance forces his hand. It’s like these two actors (despite the ads, Arkin doesn’t feature much) just want to BE, and the movie keeps calling them away for these mundane assignments.
Given an embarrassment of riches in this cast, director Fisher Stevens bungles the opportunity, running them through lame goombah tropes and hooligan-ish up-all-night misbehavior best suited to someone like Todd Phillips (or, in a darker vein, Abel Ferarra). He seems dead-set on stopping every scene short for a moment to remind audiences this is a comedy, and not a story that stands alone, a story about regrets, friendship and loyalty. Stevens, however, just wants to check off boxes, allowing Pacino a shot at running wild, and other characters the honor of watching him. Female characters in particular are mere plot devices, objects to be won, people to be saved, or scolds who secretly deserve pity. And none were apparently considered as interesting as Al Pacino’s medically-inflamed erection, who manages without any screentime to command the attention of what feels like half the story. Who needs narrative when you have Viagra? [D+]