In the course of three decades as a reviewer there have certainly been times when I’ve changed my mind about a film. There have been a few I initially dismissed and later grew to admire. And even fewer I considered accomplished or significant upon initial viewing but less so with successive ones. I can’t recall ever changing my mind about a film-doing a complete critical 180-while still in the process of watching it, however, but that’s exactly what happened in the course of watching Stand Up Guys.
To say it doesn’t start out promisingly is an understatement. Al Pacino, who is now 72, plays Val, a small time hood getting out of jail after 28 years. Christopher Walken, who will be 70 next month, is Doc, the old friend and partner in crime who picks him up at the gate. Can you blame me for abandoning all hope when, within a matter of minutes, the reunion has degenerated into a brothel visit and extended Viagra gag? I’m pretty sure I could have made it through life just fine without hearing the man who played Michael Corleone utter the line “I’ve got a python in my pants.”
The next stop is a nursing home. The two decide to “rescue” their one time getaway driver, a semi-comatose coot attached to an oxygen tank. His name is Hirsch and he’s played by Alan Arkin (78). It turns out it’s the movie that’s in serious need of saving when the pop-in magically rejuvenates the old fellow.
But the filmmakers aren’t content to have him outmaneuver cops in a high speed freeway chase; back at the brothel he follows that up by realizing his life long dream of having a three-way. That’s not ridiculous enough for the movie’s makers though; Hirsch’s pay pals fall madly in love with him.
Then, just as you’re about to write the whole thing off as mobster Bucket List baloney, the last thing you expect happens: Things get interesting. And human. And real. The film turns its focus to the relationship between Val and Doc and we come to understand that there’s more happening here than we realized. What looked like Val’s first night of freedom may in actuality be his last hurrah. And he knows it.
The boss (Mark Margolis) of the organization for which Pacino’s character worked has, we learn, been counting the days to his release as well. It turns out that his son was accidentally killed by a bullet from Val’s gun in the crossfire of the shoot out with police he did time for. Neither the fact that Val never ratted out the rest of the gang nor that the death was an accident makes a lick of difference to the old man. He wants Val dead by 10am and he wants Doc to pull the trigger.
Directed by Fisher Stevens (Just a Kiss), an actor whose face you’d instantly recognize, and written by newcomer Noah Haidle, the picture isn’t so much a work of art as a playground for a couple of artists doing their most resonant work in years. Pacino and Walken pull pathos and gravitas out of thin air, imbuing these two characters with depth beyond anything in Haidle’s script. As the two old friends drink and drug the night away, they speak wistfully of lives misspent and matter-of-factly about what awaits them in the morning.
Stevens’ second feature proves unexpectedly thoughtful and affecting thanks in large part to virtuoso interplay between its leads. And, speaking of unexpected-how about an Amour reference: Like Michael Haneke’s Oscar contender, Stand Up Guys offers a clear eyed rumination on the limits of human connection in the face of old age and death. The list of films that waded into waters this existential over the past year isn’t exactly long. I don’t want to oversell it but that’s not bad company for a movie that came this close to being Grumpy Old Gangsters.