(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on February 1, 2013.)
The harsh realities of getting old are something that everyone has to deal with. What you don’t hear about a lot in movies is the notion of aging gangsters. I believe the oldest cinematic gangster the world saw was probably brought to you by Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather, or it may have been his son Michael in The Godfather Part III. Due to the lifestyle, it seems to be rare that gangsters reach old age. Stand Up Guys finally exposes a possibility that few have dared to tackle: what if gangsters were lucky enough to turn 70 or older?
Doc (Christopher Walken) is living in a cramped apartment, has to take too many medications (and pay a high copay, too!), and he’s also been assigned what is probably the worst assignment ever: the execution of his best friend Val (Pacino), who’s just been released from prison after 28 years. In all that time in the joint, Val never said one word for a bargain or ratted out his employer, Mr. Claphands (Mark Margolis), and he’s about to get fitted for a toe tag for his troubles. Why? During the job that got Val incarcerated, Claphands’ son – who was also on the job – was shot and killed, and Claphands has blamed Val for it ever since. Doc’s been given until 10 am the next morning to make good on his assignment; but before that, Val and Doc are going to have the night of their lives, and they’re even picking up their old wheelman Hirsch (Alan Arkin) to drive them around. And Hirsh hasn’t lost his touch in the driver’s seat…
Sounds like the workings of a zany, madcap comedy are all in place, right? No. If you’re going into this movie expecting something lighthearted like Grumpy Old Men, turn around now. This is a fairly solemn look at what happens to gangsters after living the high life, and it isn’t as glamorous or as witty as you’d like it to be. These people, who were faced with hard realities before, are no longer looking down the barrel of a .45 pointed at their heads, but are instead looking down the barrel of life pointed at their whole being, body and soul. They wear their road mileage on their faces and in their speech; you can almost see how snappy each character was in their youth. But it’s a different world out there, where instead of doing cocaine, they’re taking cataract medication; instead of car keys, they have to push buttons to start a car; and instead of living in glitzy houses, they’re stuck in retirement homes.
Thanks to great direction by Fisher Stevens, the trio of Pacino, Arkin and Walken struts their geriatric best and still manage to look like winners. They all have an easy rapport between them, and Arkin’s deadpan delivery makes for great laughs every time. With nods to cinema staples like They Live and Quentin Tarantino movies, Noah Heidle’s script is a little hokey, but it’s saved by terrific direction and the actors elevating the script beyond its obvious lifts. Addison Timlin has a small turn as a diner waitress who takes an interest in our guys; she gives a very noteworthy performance here, even though she’s only in three scenes in the entire film.
One of the exchanges in Stand Up Guys comes at a point where they’re in a stolen car, getting into trouble. One of them says, “Just like the good old days, huh?”, to which another replies, “No, it’s better… this time, we can enjoy it.” Having played gangster-ish types before, it’s fun to see Pacino, Walken, and Arkin having fun with roles that they helped establish in their earlier cinematic outings. While it won’t change the world or win tons of awards, Stand Up Guys is easily one of the most watchable and enjoyable movies I’ve seen in a while. Just watch out for the end; it’s a doozy.