“Stand Up Guys” is a story of revenge, loyalty and honor, but it’s far from your typical action/gangster flick. For one thing, “Stand Up Guys” is a snapshot of life at a much later stage than you’ll see in any given Wahlberg, Pitt, Cruise or even Clooney movie. The film stars seasoned Oscar winners Christopher Walken and Al Pacino, as well as fellow Academy Award winner Alan Arkin in a major supporting role. The result is an offbeat-yet-powerful depiction of friendship and aging.
“Stand Up Guys” begins with Al Pacino’s long-awaited release from jail, where he dutifully served 28 years in taking the fall and refusing to name names in a heist gone awry. Doc (Walken), a longtime friend and co-worker of sorts to Val (Pacino), collects Val after his release and takes him gallivanting around town to enjoy the simple pleasures of life that he’s missed – namely, steak and hookers. As Val resumes his pre-prison habits and lifestyle, he is reminded (both by Doc and by various unsuccessful endeavors) that they are much older men than they were when he left free society.
Meanwhile, as Val discovers the power of modern pharmaceuticals like Viagra (among others), Doc grapples with an approaching deadline for the job he’s been assigned: to kill Val. Though Val kept his mouth shut “like a stand up guy” after his arrest, one of his bullets killed his (and Doc’s) boss’s only son in the crossfire of the unsuccessful robbery that led to Val’s arrest. You may recognize Claphands (Mark Margolis), the ubiquitous crime boss, from Breaking Bad, where he plays Tio Salamanca. Without the wheelchair and oxygen apparatus, Margolis is just as creepy but also significantly scarier as the all-powerful boss who will stop at nothing to avenge his son’s death.
While the premise may sound a bit “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”-esque, this film could hardly be further from the fast-paced shootout-style storyline that seems like it would ensue. Instead, the main plot doesn’t really develop or progress at all for the vast majority of the movie. Val is still sharp as a tack, and is all too familiar with Claphands and his M.O., and he is wise to Doc’s assignment from very early on. Perhaps it’s their longstanding friendship, or perhaps it’s their shared experience in “the business,” but Val and Doc manage to maintain a candid dialogue and open friendship despite the looming and imminent prospect of death.
Indeed, Val is not only aware of but also understanding of Doc’s obligation to complete the assignment, which is likely a function of their mutual familiarity with guns, violence and “jobs.” For those of us without mob experience, however, this element of the film is the hardest to grasp.
The unique relationship between Val and Doc allows them to spend most of their time (and most of the movie) engaging in entertaining diversions from the assignment and the main plotline. This process is aided by their reunion with Hirsch (Alan Arkin), an old friend who served as the getaway driver for the crew in the good old days. Together, they get into adventures that only old criminals with nothing to lose would get into, including stealing a sick car, breaking Hirsch out of an old folks home and doing lines of ulcer meds.
Though some aspects of this film are difficult to relate to, “Stand Up Guys” is ultimately about honor, loyalty and friends as “witnesses to your life,” which should be relevant to just about everyone. Plus, it’s hard not to appreciate a movie in which virtually every major character delivers a standout performance. Be sure to watch carefully for the relatively unknown actors in this movie, like Vanessa Ferlito, who hold their own when sharing the screen with the greats.