Sometimes the plot of a movie doesn’t matter. Sometimes the casting is more important. And when the casting is nailed, everything else falls into place, even if everything else doesn’t make complete sense.
Stand Up Guys is about a trio of old time crooks — Doc, Val and Hirsch — who get together in their old age for one last night of mischief. But there’s a deadline that has to be met. Doc (Christopher Walken) has to kill his old buddy Val (Al Pacino) because Val accidentally killed Claphands’ son many many years ago. And he has just been released from a 28-year sentence, a sentence he endured for being… well, a stand-up guy. Doc may or may not want to pull the trigger, but it matters little when his family is threatened.
Who are Doc and Val? We never really find out. Who is Claphands (Mark Margolis)? The villain required by the plot to facilitate the deadline. Or he could be a very sardonic cheerleader. Their history exists in a place outside the plot. The plot is only for where they are now.
Doc and Val’s third crony, Hirsch (Alan Arkin), who was the getaway driver back when their wrinkles hadn’t stretched to the surface of their skin yet, makes a miraculous recovery from suffering oxygen tanks in a nursing home to speeding a stolen muscle car down the empty streets of a nameless city. This city is a blank canvas sparkled with street lamps. Very few people seem to move about in the early hours. The roads are barren. The 24-hour diner our lads visit is almost empty. When they discover a naked girl tied in the car’s boot, the resulting confrontation takes place in a bubble. Perhaps it’s fitting then that the city never gets a name. There’d be no point.
There are a number of plot holes here. The most glaring of which is the disjointed chronology of diegetic events. I’m thinking Doc and Val must’ve been in their mid 20s when Val ended Claphand’s son’s life. How old would that have made Claphand? How old, for that matter, was his son? The script by Noah Haidle isn’t concerned with all this. It feeds its characters, who in turn feed each other.
Pacino, with his craggy voice that seems to indicate some sort of ill, wanders through the night like a ghoul. A little mishap with viagra sends him to the hospital with a problem as ridiculous as freezing your tongue to a pole, and as he counts the hours to his death, he picks up more vigour. Walken stands strong as the man with the conscience, and Arkin brings about as much life to his role as his oxygen tanks will allow.
There is also an assortment of female characters. There’s the naked girl (Vanessa Ferlito), who relishes a little bat-on-groin action; there’s the small-time brothel our lads visit hopefully, inhabited by sexy ladies who evoke a splendour of paid sex long gone; there’s Nina Hirsch (Julianna Margulies), Arkin’s daughter who conveniently works as a night-shift nurse; and there’s Alex (Addison Timlin), the cute diner waitress with an affinity for Doc. We find out why later.
The cleverness of Haidle’s script is its ability to give all these characters room to breathe while at the same time treating them as vignettes who enter and leave without so much as a hello or goodbye. Indeed, characters are exited about as abruptly as they are introduced. Seldom does a Hollywood screenplay treat its characters with such hostility.
It is a balancing act, the screenplay. I liked how subversive it is, and at the same time I hoped for more. Doc and Val are simple men with simple needs, but they speak with sophistication. They suggest a strong history, made all the more potent by this suggestion. Nothing is ever fed to us. There is room for violence here, and for comedy. And there is also room for sentimentality. You’d be surprised how quickly the time flies with this film. And how much it has to tell.
Best Moment | Walken, Pacino and Arkin trying to figure out how to start the car.
Worst Moment | Apart from the narrative faults, nothing really.