“I can’t believe you guys didn’t work together all this time,” says Val (Al Pacino). He’s talking to his best friend Doc (Christopher Walken) and their buddy Hirsch (Alan Arkin), but the line could be spoken by any of the three actors, or for that matter, the audience, addressed to any of the other two. Pacino, Walken, and Arkin have done plenty of movies, especially crime movies, in their decades onscreen, but they have not worked together—at least not much. Walken and Pacino are both in the notorious Gigli, but to my recollection they abscond with entirely separate scenes. Arkin seems like he could’ve been in one of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 movies, but no dice (Pacino appeared in the third one).
All three men have been busy; it can take years to get compatible actors in the same frame. Over 20 years passed between Pacino and Robert De Niro costarring in The Godfather Part II (they shared the movie but not their timelines) and their proper path-crossing in Heat. Walken acted with De Niro in The Deer Hunter, but not since. Now they’re circling back and finding each other. After a certain age, it seems, actors have to pair up with other legends they’ve somehow managed to miss earlier in their careers—a checklist of peers.
Sometimes these belated team-ups can disappoint: witness the second proper De Niro/Pacino joint, Righteous Kill. They share many more scenes than they do in Heat, all in service of a mediocrity about chasing a serial killer. Stand Up Guys, at least, does not unite Pacino and Walken to prop up a grisly thriller that would have otherwise gone directly to DVD. The movie aims for small and quiet: Pacino’s Val gets out of prison after nearly 30 years, and is met by Walken’s Doc. They go out for a low-key night on the unnamed, underpopulated town, visiting a diner, a bar, and a brothel with very few customers. They muse about where the time went.
Val suspects, correctly, that Doc has been hired to kill him by the gangster Claphands (Mark Margolis). Val was imprisoned for killing the gangster’s son, and though he didn’t rat anyone out to shorten his sentence, Claphands still wants revenge. It puts Doc in a dilemma, which the movie simplifies by making it clear that Val, apparently more thief than killer, committed accidental homicide in a flurry of bullets, not a deliberate act of murder. Regardless of the doomy implications, Val and Doc continue to hang out and enjoy each other’s company, eventually recruiting their friend Hirsch (Arkin) from his rest home.
It’s all very reflective and resigned, and might have been funny or touching with better dialogue. Instead, Val and Doc speak in a cutesy, staccato back-and-forth, like they’re each trying to match each other’s syllable count. Walken can still make some of this work by spinning his lines off in unexpected directions (at one point, talking about his paintings of sunrises, he sounds like he’s describing “my son, Rises”), but the rhythm is endless and deadening in the manner of a third-rate play (some research reveals that screenwriter Noah Haidle is also a playwright).
The movie’s settings are stagy, too: there never seem to be any other people around, and the anonymous city has an artificial air. On the DVD commentary track, director Fisher Stevens (yes, the actor) reveals that this sparseness is intentional, noting that there are “very few extras in this movie” and “very few extras in this world.” He tries to sell the choice as thematically relevant, but admits that he finds directing extras to be a nightmarish proposition.
The story is spare, too. Most of its ideas seem spent by around the 40-minute mark, which is when the movie begins circling back: Val and Doc visit the brothel, again. They visit the diner, again. And again, Stevens reveals that a weakness of the movie is a conscious choice: he talks about shooting the brothel-set scenes like a single play. I’ll go further and suggest that Stand Up Guys feels like a one-act stretched beyond 90 minutes. It’s no surprise that there aren’t many deleted scenes—though it is odd to find out that one of the two features Pacino cutting a rug (a slower dance scene stayed in the final cut), while Walken, a graceful part-time dancer, looks on in delight.
It was probably a fun set: Walken and Pacino look relaxed, and neither fully indulges their potential for ham (Pacino finds a nice balance between his movie-star tics and his late-period sleepiness, and Arkin goes lighter on the shtick than usual). But by the time Val and Doc pick up their guns in a scene that seems more like a tribute to the actors’ collective past than the characters’, I wondered if a pulpier or hammier approach might have served the actors better . Stand Up Guys may not be as hacky as it could have been, but it gets awfully sentimental about the mere fact that it’s not absolutely terrible.