Picture a mobster in prison for 28 years, and then finally out on parole in the twilight years of his life. What’s the first thing he’d want to do? In the case of Val (Al Pacino), it’s “food, sex and drugs,” not necessarily in that order. Fortunately, his best friend in the world, Doc (Christopher Walken), is at the prison gates to pick him up and proffer those exact things, along with Hirsch (Alan Arkin), another pal from “the old days” who used to drive their heist car.
If this sounds like a cozy retirement situation among three quaint ex-gangsters, it’s my duty to issue a violence alert. Get ready to see some major action moves coming from all three of these gents (who all do their own stunts).
“Stand Up Guys” highlights the best performances from the trio in recent memory, and they go at it full throttle from the first opening minutes. This is even before they break into a pharmacy to procure some Viagra, but let’s not go there just yet.
Directed by Fisher Stevens, himself a funny and versatile Hollywood actor, “Midnight Guys” comes off like something Stevens himself would love to star in once he hits 65. Maybe that’s what he actually had in mind. After a certain age, many actors see respectable or relevant roles just dry up and disappear; even Gérard Depardieu once told me that when he was in his mid-50s, the job became a matter of battling for self-respect. So you could say Stevens is circumventing warfare by making quality movies as a director (this is his second feature) in order to cast himself in quality roles in his own productions 20 years down the line. Very shrewd.
Stevens never glosses over the age thing; rather, his story revels in it. Val is feisty but way behind the times, to the point of being a relic. He tries to steal a car, using old-fashioned techniques, until Doc gently tells him, “You can’t steal cars with a coat hanger anymore.” Val, wide-eyed and incredulous, replies: “Says who?” It’s a moment to treasure, and the movie has many of them. The trio cook up some extraordinary exuberance and camaraderie — almost to the exclusion of everyone else. Julianna Margulies (from “ER”) makes an appearance as Hirsch’s daughter, but her normal charisma gets more or less quashed by her dad’s and his friends’ overwhelming presence.
The catch is that these old friends have just one night together, before Doc must kill Val or be offed himself — the result of a decades-old settling of scores on the part of their mob boss, Claphands (Mark Margolis). Val suspects he knows what’s coming, but keeps his thoughts under wraps. For his part, Doc feels sadder as the night begins to wane. He has no coherent plan apart from giving Val a roaring good time before daylight, and then emptying a gun barrel into his best friend’s gut. It’s a tough job.
But that simple plan goes awry as a chain of events and bad decisions trigger the trio’s overwhelming desire to generate mayhem at other people’s expense, and then make a run for it. In short, they’re still thugs at heart. “Stand Up Guys” is completely unapologetic about that, as it is about everything else. This is good news: Old age means never having to say you’re sorry.