Old age can be a frightening prospect for anyone, but especially for gangsters. Think about it, your aim starts to go, you begin forgetting the names of your hit victims, and before you know it, you’re spouting gems like, “as far back as I can remember…it was yesterday.” This unfavorable scenario faces the protagonists of Fisher Stevens’ (yes, that Fisher Stevens) Stand Up Guys. Back in the good ol’ days, the all-or-nothing days, a certain trio of button men were the toast of the town. To phrase it with fewer idioms, Val (Al Pacino), Doc (Christopher Walken) and Hirsch (Alan Arkin) comprise the literal gang getting back together in their twilight years for a final night of wild antics before Doc must complete his last assignment…killing Val.
Stevens has had a bizarre career as a filmmaker, and Stand Up Guys is clearly the most ambitious project he’s ever undertaken. Truth be told, it shows a great deal of promise. Pacino and Walken are living legends, and they’ve each in their own right played some of cinema’s most iconic gangsters. That said, the casting of either one or both of these actors long ago exited the realm of a guaranteed hit…or even a guarantee that the film would be watchable. However, Stevens smartly walks the line between keeping his actors sharply focused on playing the beats that enhance the narrative and letting them ease into their natural cosa nostra charisma. There are even thrilling pockets in which we are reminded that there is still some bite left in these old dogs.
In its best moments, Stand Up Guys is a post-modern crime comedy. Stevens is clearly influenced by the gritty crime cinema of the 1970s, and his movie shines brightest with those influences rise to the surface. The natural and most effective theme running the length of the movie is the forgone conclusion of death. Directly, it follows the Walken/Pacino story like a Peckinpah-esque shadow; the inescapable fate of Val at the hands of his own friend. On another level, the confrontation of mortality is a suitable preoccupation for any group of elderly leads, but it is doubly apropos for characters existing within the dangerous gangster culture. Val’s eventual resignation to his fate anchors the film emotionally and creates the most interesting character dynamics. Stand Up Guys could be accused of being overly sentimental at points, but the performers take careful ownership of each moment of wistfulness so that we can’t help but be moved.
Unfortunately, the misfires are far from minor. First and foremost, Stand Up Guys is not particularly well shot. Again, Stevens’ 70s era influence is visible in the dingy, bleak visual overtones. The movie is as fuzzy and shadowy as a fading memory which might thematically harken back to its recurring sentimentality. Logistically however, it just makes for a frustratingly obscured watching experience. There is also an irritating unevenness to the plot. The hiccup of a storyline involving Vanessa Ferlito, for example, is entirely unnecessary. Also, Arkin, who is arguably the best character in the movie, shows up late and vanishes from the proceedings far too soon. True, the crux of the story is the relationship between Walken and Pacino, but the decline in quality in Arkin’s absence is still starkly noticeable.
The ending of the film is especially weak. We build nicely toward the long goodbye, a thoughtful moment of truth. For a second, it appears that Stand Up Guys is going to transcend to a meta plane on which two old hoods staring death in the face are echoes of the aging actors who play them. All of this only to have the movie devolve into a cheap action set piece. This exceedingly contrived ending is not only anticlimactic, but also in fact undermines all previously earned emotional beats. Honestly, this would have worked if Stevens had seen fit to show us whether this seemingly suicidal gesture actually ended in suitable tragedy or unexpected triumph.
The Upside: Great character work by the three leads and several moments of genuine pathos.
The Downside: Poorly shot, uneven story, and a thoroughly unsatisfying ending.
On the Side: Fisher Stevens is still the star of Hackers.