Stand Up Guys is a one-night swan song to the gangster genre that almost manages to be charming, but ultimately disappoints. The film plays so specifically to an older audience it becomes old-man fantasy. Its unevenly goofy, yet heartfelt dialogue highlights sanitized, two-dimensional interpretations of two of America’s finest wiseguys. Watching Christopher Walken and Al Pacino play off each other, with the bonus treat of Alan Arkin, can’t manage to be anything but charming, but there’s a due remorse in their affect, well in line with Stand Up Guys over-arching motif of people who are past their time.
The film spans a day in the lives of two aging gangsters, Val (Pacino) and Doc (Walken) on the day of Val’s release from a twenty-eight year prison stay. Doc is there to pick him up, show him a good time on his first day of freedom, and kill him before morning, under longstanding orders from his vengeful boss Claphands. As the moment of action draws closer, the two engage in sophomoric reclamations of youth reminiscent of an 80’s screwball comedy, such as visiting a brothel and overdosing on Viagra, stealing a rival gang’s car, and breaking an old friend (Alan Arkin) out of a nursing home. Intermittently these wacky antics are interrupted by soft attempts at sentimentality, such as when Al Pacino dances “old school” with a girl who could be his granddaughter’s age, or weak reaffirmations of the “Stand Up Guys” nature of our gangsters, such as when they discover a rather unfazed rape victim in the trunk of their stolen car and casually help her get revenge on her attackers. The film has a decent pace and never ceases to entertain but the familiarly unrealistic dialogue, the tired American gangster clichés, and the skewed balance of screwball comedy, wise crime flick, and emotional swan song cheapen the at-times quite effortful performances, even if those performances are just caricatures of a more complex character we just don’t get to see anymore.
What doesn’t read about the film is exactly what’s indicated in the title. The American Gangster genre that Stand Up Guys attempts to pay ode to is simply not here. Films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, and King of New York, are about ruthless, cold-blooded men in a world of cruelty and violence. This film attempts to give us all the language of that world, but in the guise of the conveniently “likable gangster,” neutered pit bulls, once killers but now sympathetic due to their age. Passing references to past murders are peppered through the dialogue like weak jokes.
Fans of the gangster genre and of the performances these actors once turned in could manage to have a good time as the film is more complex than simple referential humor, in an overextended, slightly more sophisticated SNL sketch kind of way.