Who indeed. Well, basically they’re three old farts but they are “Stand Up Guys.”
Gangsters, mob soldiers, wise guys, call ’em what you like. They’ve done the crimes and in some cases done the time and now they’re old and eager for one last go-round, even one last night, to feel alive again.
As one of them says, “This time we can appreciate it.”
Sounds like a recipe for a lot of sentimentality about the great time they had kneecapping some guy and, to be honest, there is a bit of that.
But for the most part, like several other movies about aging that have surfaced recently, such as “Amour,” “Quartet” and two from Portugal, Manoel de Oliveira’s “Gebo and the Shadow” and Miguel Gomes’ “Tabu,” this most entertaining film about old-boy gangsters is a meditation on freedom, loyalty and that slow fade at life’s end.
Oh yeah, those guys are also three Oscar winners — Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin.
Anytime that happens, the movie becomes a star vehicle. In this instance, it works terrifically.
You sense the actors’ past lives, by which I mean all those characters they’ve played on so many screens and stages, drifting through these particular roles.
Things start out ordinarily enough. Val (Pacino) is getting out of stir after 28 years. He drew a long sentence for refusing to give up anyone else in a job gone wrong.
His old pal from that job, Doc (Walken), picks him up outside prison and drives him to an unnamed city. You realize soon enough that forces greater than either retired gangster dictate that Doc is to deliver a gang leader’s death sentence on Val for that long-ago crime gone bad.
But first there’s time to grab a drink, visit a bordello — which Val is astonished still exists — and make up for time lost. Then they decide to bust another old pal named Hirsch (Arkin) out of an old-age home.
Which means a revisit to the bordello.
In fact, let’s see, the screenplay pays three visits to the bordello, a couple to Val’s drab flat and at least two to Val’s’s favorite diner and waitress.
The screenplay was written by playwright Noah Haidle and he celebrates the stage’s economy of locations and unities of time.
For other than the oldsters’ joy ride in a stolen car and an ensuing police chase, “Stand Up Guys” might well take place on stage. It happens over a compact 24 hours and circles back to its various locations, making every stopover feel lived in.
Director Fisher Stevens performs the magic trick of letting the chemistry among his actors — and not just those who’ve won Oscars — evolve with grace and panache without the kind of mugging that so often accompanies Old Boys Gone Wild movies.
(Remember how Matthau and Lemmon chewed the scenery in years of grumpy old men movies?)
Their personalities gradually emerge as the night wears on. The guys become alive to the fact this night represents a last chance. You sense the kind of men they once were and how regret mingles bitterly with pleasant memories.
Not for one minute though does the movie miss out on every opportunity for comedy. Especially in those visits to the bordello when the old-timers astonish the working girls with their ageless yearnings.
Or in nocturnal visits to various stores around town where despite their retired status locked doors represent a challenge to their many illicit talents. (You do wonder why alarms never go off, however.)
The three leads play off one another like the old pros they are. Pacino shows more restraint than he has in many recent roles as a guy who has clearly mellowed over the years.
Yes, prison will do that to you, but you sense that all that time spent more or less alone with himself and his memories has enriched his life with a wisdom he disguises behind false bravado.
Heaviness hangs over Walken, whose character has found solace in painting and daily routines of deliberate dullness. His burden of executing the mob boss’ death sentence slows his gait, brings caution to his perambulation around town and profound sadness to his life.
Arkin has a smaller role but his late addition to the ensemble brings the other two alive so you sense how things must have been, once upon a time.
The joy that breaks out on Arkin’s face and the way in which his body comes back to life for one last round of mischief demonstrate how a superior actor can inhabit a role, body and soul.
“Stand Up Guys” benefits from a strong supporting cast, most of it much younger and female. Julianne Margulies brings considerable warmth to a small role as a nurse and daughter of Arkin’s character. Addison Timlin gives poignancy to the waitress who has special meaning for Doc.
Vanessa Ferlito has a winningly feisty role as a crime victim who, thanks to the intervention of the stand up guys, gets to exact her revenge. Finally, Lucy Punch makes astute comedy out of the bordello’s increasingly surprised madam.
“Charm” and “gangster movie” don’t seem to belong in the same sentence but “Stand Up Guys” has real charm. That it is being released in the no-man’s-land of January/February perhaps shows no one knew what to do with a charming and funny gangster movie.
I also suspect “Stand Up Guys” won’t be in cinemas too long so go catch it on the big screen. There Michael Grady’s lensing with the red camera and Maher Ahmad’s meticulous production design catch all the gritty atmosphere of the gone-to-hell streets of these men’s youth.
One last note: The film is dedicated to one of the film’s exec producers, the late Bingham Ray. He was a stand up guy in his own right, a champion of indie cinema and filmmakers who struggle to bring amazing work to the screen without the resources (some would say burden) of studios.
“Stand Up Guys” is a fitting tribute to the man.
Distributor: Lionsgate (February 1, 2013)
Production companies: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Lakeshore Entertainment
Cast: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Julianna Margulies, Alan Arkin, Katheryn Winnick, Mark Margolis, Vanessa Ferlito, Addison Timlin
Director: Fisher Stevens
Screenwriter: Noah Haidle
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Jim Tauber
Executive producers: Eric Reid, Ted Gidlow, Bruce Toll, Bingham Ray, Matt Berenson
Director of photography: Michael Grady
Production designer: Maher Ahmad
Music: Lyle Workman
Costume designer: Lindsay Ann McKay
Editor: Mark Livolsi
R rating, 94 minutes