By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Sometimes just watching gifted actors do their thing is enough.
That’s certainly the case with Stand Up Guys, a crime comedy-drama that, despite a number of shaky plot points and far too much arbitrary behavior, entertains on the shoulders of three vastly experienced, enormously talented, and winningly quirky Oscar winners — Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin.
It would be a crime to waste the efforts of this trio, and the film doesn’t. But actor-turned director Fisher Stevens (Just a Kiss), in his second feature assignment, doesn’t help them much either.
Stand Up Guys doesn’t exactly fall down, but it doesn’t take off. Like these lawbreakers, it gets by.
It’s a dramedy about loyalty, morality, and mortality, as three aging wiseguys try to stay afloat.
Pacino plays Val, a career criminal and low-level mobster who gets out of prison after 28 years and reunites with his partner-in-crime, Doc, played by Walken, who has retired from criminal grifting and now spends most of his leisure time painting.
Val’s stand-up status is a result of his having refused to rat out his cronies: he just clammed up and took the rap and did his nearly three decades of time.
So he is more than ready to go out and have some fun, try to make up for lost time, and cross a few hedonistic items off his bucket list.
What Val doesn’t know (and Doc does –- and it’s driving the ambivalent Doc to distraction) is that Doc has been contracted by a vicious mob boss known as Claphands, played by Mark Margolis, to kill Val within a day of his release so as to avenge the accidental shooting of his son 28 years ago — for which he blames Val — during the shootout that resulted from the bungled heist.
And Doc has no choice because he’ll be killed if he doesn’t carry the assignment through.
What to do, what to do.
One of Val’s nurses, played by Julianna Margulies, just happens to be the daughter of Arkin’s character Hirsch, a widower who used to be their getaway driver.
Val and Doc liberate Hirsch from his nursing home, put him back behind the wheel — always his comfort zone — and the three amigos pursue their last hurrah with one wild night on the town.
The contrived script by newcomer Noah Haidle tries, not too successfully, to explore the themes of the indignity of aging and honor among thieves, and does an additional disservice to its principals by including a number of lazy and unconvincing coincidences.
It also throws up its hands instead of finding a satisfying ending.
Still, much of the humor works nicely, some of the pathos hits the target, there’s a surprise or two along the way, and each of the three leads gets a chance to shine.
Pacino is outgoing and expressive throughout without ever chewing any scenery, and Arkin is his usual drily amusing self.
But Walken is a wonder as a quiet and reflective ex-grifter, contributing a thoughtful, poignant, indelible performance of quiet dignity that transcends the material by quite a margin. It’s yet another sly, idiosyncratic performance by an actor who just keeps getting better and better.
Appreciative viewers have a good deal of nostalgic pleasure in store because of all the past screen work that this thespian troika has produced, even if certain aspects of the film, mostly script-related, richly deserve their Walken papers.
So we’ll mob 2½ stars out of 4 for this bittersweet grumpy-old-gangsters buddy romp. Stand Up Guys is a sit-down mobster dramedy highlighted by Christopher Walken’s standup guise.