It’s a measure of Al Pacino’s inconsistent commercial film choices that each new release is met with at least as much cringing wariness as anticipation. So it’s fitting that his latest, Stand Up Guys, encapsulates that inconsistency unto itself. The film, like its characters, meanders throughout the night so it can reach morning and a guns-a-blazing payoff. Virtually everything about Stand Up Guys is forced — yet it’s so casual and earnest about its own contrivances, so offhand in how it embraces formula and delivers on each setup, it gains an odd charm in relief.
Pacino inhabits an uncouth sad sack of a crook named Val who, as the film opens, is released after serving 28 years for a heist that went south (and for not ratting on his conspirators). There to receive him is old friend and accomplice Doc (Christopher Walken), who offers to share his modest apartment. Doc is a lonesome, sensitive soul who finds an expressive outlet as a not-bad artist. He also has the unwanted assignment to kill his old friend. Throughout the day and night, Doc gets pressing phone calls from a crime boss named Claphands (Mark Margolis), who wants to know the deed has been done. Claphands’ son was accidentally shot and killed by Val in the crossfire during the robbery, and the grieving father has waited these many years to get his revenge. Meanwhile, Val — who suspects that he’s a marked man — just wants to live it up, and Doc is happy to oblige.
Bars, brothels, and diners accrue on the itinerary. Pacino and Walken, now elder statesmen among notable American actors, who gave career-defining performances in the 1970s, inhabit their roles as comfortably as the rumpled suits they wear. Walken has the less showy, more difficult role, playing the voice of reason to Pacino’s livewire, and conveying his conflicted emotions even as he and Val are painting the town. Fortunately for audiences, both are allowed to be funny, even if the kind of humor on display here is frequently juvenile.
Stand Up Guys amuses in the way it defies expectations even as it travels a well-worn path. When Val discovers that the sexual enhancement pills he chewed have given him an irrepressible hard-on, he boldly walks up to a group of young ladies seated around a table at a nightclub and announces the “python” he’s got packing. After a brief detour at a hospital (the climax to this Viagra joke), the aged pair recognize the nurse on duty (Julianna Margulies) is the daughter of their old wheelman, Hirsch, whom they decide to rescue from a drab nursing home. Alan Arkin’s role as Hirsch amounts to an extended but amusing cameo, including a nice touch of taking one last drag off his oxygen tank before heading out on the town. From there they make a third visit to the same brothel, go joyriding in a stolen muscle car, and administer vengeance on behalf of a wronged woman (who doles out some satisfying justice of her own).
The film follows the pair (and for a brief time, Hirsch) through day, night and into the wee hours. There’s not much of a conventional plot, but Stand Up Guys captures a seedy nocturnal vibe. (Pretty much every place they visit is dimly lit and depressing in its disregard for humanity.) Just when it veers into the old-man pathos of creeping mortality, regrettable decisions and self pity, the film rights itself with left-field gags and punchy, sometimes bizarre, stretches of dialogue.
Stand Up Guys works less as a coherent piece of gripping drama than as a showcase of its stars’ talents and reputation for being so weird. It deserves an extra half-star (or number or whatever token of assessment) for what it isn’t — namely, a flick about three aged crooks giving it all they’ve got for one last job. Fisher Stevens, who may be best known for his role in the Short Circuit films, directs and keeps things moving along with a light touch that values restraint and shows respect for his leads. Those leads — Pacino, Walken and Arkin — make this low-budget diversion more fun than might have been hoped for. “Are we gonna chew gum or kick some ass?” asks Val of his partners. In their own way, kick some ass is just what these old pros do.