“Stand Up Guys” sounds like a premise that’s pretty hard to screw up: A “one crazy night” crime comedy/drama with Al Pacino and Christopher Walken as aging gangsters, with about 80 percent of the running time taken up by nothing but banter between the two actors.
However, screw it up, they did. The movie, directed by Fisher Stevens, is a huge mess, lurching through jarring shifts in tone and never really succeeding in any of them. It’s one scene of gross-out humor, then one of hard-boiled crime, then attempted sweetness, followed by more dick jokes.
The movie, somewhat incredibly, is the first time the 72-year-old Pacino and 69-year-old Walken have top-lined a movie. They play low men on the totem pole of a criminal organization led by a boss named “Clamhands” (Mark Margolis, familiar to Breaking Bad fans as the old guy with the bell.)
At the beginning, we see Pacino emerging from prison after 28 years, with Walken his only friend. Soon we learn Clamhands wants Pacino dead, and it’s Walken’s job to make him dead by the next morning. The film follows the two through that long night, where they’re joined at one point by former running buddy Alan Arkin, who they liberate from a nursing home.
Once again, this sounds like a dynamite premise. But it fails, for a few reasons. The script, by playright-turned-screenwriter Noah Haidle, is both structured poorly and fails to give these two old lions any memorable dialogue. Most of the attempts at humor fail too, including an unfortunate sequence involving Viagra. And for some reason the movie decides to repeatedly lift the most famous line from “They Live,” without attribution.
The plot lurches around too, and it doesn’t even get the rules of One Crazy Night movies- instead of surprising us, the story keeps returning to locations repeatedly (a diner and a brothel, three times each.) And how do these 70-year-old men manage to stay up all night? I can barely make it past midnight, and I’m 34.
Even more strangely, the film turns into “Kill Bill” for five minutes, as the characters find a bound naked woman (Vanessa Ferlito) in their trunk, help her facilitate an elaborate revenge fantasy, and then just forget about her.
The performances are subpar as well. Pacino was praised, back in 1997’s “Donnie Brasco,” for his heartbreaking portrayal of a very different mobster, a much older, weaker and lower-level gangster than the Michael Corleone we all remember. Now, it’s 16 years later, and Pacino’s playing a gangster even older, more pathetic, and even more small-time. Pacino tones down the “hoo-ha” stuff, but this won’t be confused with his best work for a second. He also looks like he’s been painted orange.
Sure, Walken is always interesting, even in projects that are not. But there’s no Eastwood-in-Gran Torino moment for either actor, something a more ambitious version of this movie would’ve attempted. Neither of their performances has anything to say about the actors’ long careers, or serves as any kind of commentary on their previous roles.
The supporting cast, aside from a winning turn by Arkin, isn’t so great either. Margolis is considerably less menacing in this movie than he was on Breaking Bad, even though this time he actually gets to speak. Also on hand, for about 30 seconds at least, is Keone Young (Mr. Wu from Deadwood), but he doesn’t get to do a whole lot either.
Julianna Marguiles shows up- playing an E.R. nurse once again- and the second of her two scenes makes absolutely no sense. She should be very angry at the other characters, and asking questions of them, but does neither. Just about the only character of interest is a mousy madam played by British actress Lucy Punch.
While writing this review, I saw a TV ad for the movie calling it “a bad boy ‘Bucket List.'” That somehow made me like it even less than I did already.