Friday, May 17, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Old pros keep clunky material watchable in "Stand Up Guys"

Stand Up Guys (2013)
94 min., rated R.

It's an old joke by now, but "Stand Up Guys" is Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin's "Grumpy Old Gangsters." It doesn't pretend to be anything more than a "Greatest Hits" vehicle tailor-made for three iconic veteran actors to just show up and be themselves. It's almost shocking that these three (let alone Pacino and Walken) have never appeared in a movie together. With expectations this high, "Stand Up Guys" ought to be something special, but, given the contrived, familiar "getting the old gang back together" material, it's only watchable and adequately diverting for 94 minutes.

Out of prison for killing a man 28 years ago, ex-hitman Valentine/Val (Pacino) gets picked up his old associate, Doc (Walken), a painter who's supposedly retired. Doc's latest hit? Val. He has until morning to "deliver the package," from the demands of a crook named Claphands (Mark Margolis) who wants revenge on Val for murdering his son. But Val just wants to party and have a comeback, even though he already suspects he has a target on his back by his closest friend. Over the course of the night in which Doc hesitates in pulling the trigger, these old chums "rescue" their third musketeer, Hirsch (Arkin), also their former getaway driver, who's now living in a nursing home dying of Emphysema. These guys are a few decades shy of their glory days but still got it.

This is one of those times where casting elevates everything else. "Stand Up Guys" is at its best when character actor-turned-director Fisher Stevens, making his behind-the-camera debut, just lets these three strut their stuff. They have a relaxed rapport and history together as tough guys who stop themselves from turning into touchy-feely puddles of mush. But even gun-happy guys like Val and Doc hug it out, and those moments have a low-key tenderness without heightening the sap factor. Pacino gets out his loud, wild antics in the first half-hour but then touchingly conveys a criminal whose mortality stares him right in the face. Walken is also in his comfort zone, quietly playing Doc as a tough guy with a job to do but a heart of gold. Arkin criminally appears all too briefly for twenty-odd minutes, but that gives him time to riff and just spend time with his co-stars. In one scene, all three play around with Roddy Piper's silly "…and I'm all out of gum" catchphrase from John Carpenter's "They Live."

The script by first-time feature screenwriter Noah Haidle gets off to a clunky start. Upon entering Doc's small apartment, which is not to Val's liking, the two have a few exchanges that feel forced and awkward. "This is the worst apartment I've ever seen," Val rags. "Hey, it's not much but it's mine" Doc responds. "This is for me?" pointing to the couch. "No, it's for my other friend who just got out of prison." Then there's a less-hacky-than-usual Viagra joke, because a movie about retirees always needs a Viagra joke, with Pacino delivering the line, "Uh-oh. Mount Everest just moved into my pants." The payoff comes with a giant syringe. Most of the plot-driven jokes are like that, uninspired and pretty tone-deaf. And pay no attention to story holes, like the casual burial at a cemetery late at night. It's the three-man chemistry that we've come to see anyway.

While we wait around to see whether or not Doc will whack Val, the story just marks time with detours around town. They make whoopee at a brothel, pop and snort pills, steal a car, frequent the same diner three times, and just shoot the shit. Once it comes time for the final destination, the ending doesn't not let us off the hook but brings out the guns for Doc and Val's last hurrah. Before then, Pacino and Walken share a few moments with some of the lovely supporting women, including Julianna Margulies, back in her "ER" scrubs, as Hirsch's nurse daughter; Vanessa Ferlito, as a gang-rape victim whom they rescue from a trunk and help settle a score; and the sweet-faced Addison Timlin as a waitress who always takes Doc's same order. Lone exception: Lucy Punch is painfully quirky as a second-generation brothel keeper.

Putting out a great film with this trio of seasoned pros should be akin to shooting fish in a barrel, but the material is never as effortless as they are. Though it doesn't have legs (get it?), "Stand Up Guys" is still time affably spent. Being in good company with Pacino, Walken, and Arkin, you could do a whole lot worse.

Grade: C +

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