You never want the word “cute” to be associated with Al Pacino or Christopher Walken to begin with, let alone an action-comedy starring both of them. You certainly don’t want the term “sappy” to apply. Unfortunately, Fisher Stevens’s “Stand Up Guys” is just that: cute and sappy, with too few smart-alecky laughs to spice up its bland soul.
Pacino is a faded hitman just sprung from a twenty eight-year jail stint, for the accidental killing of a mob boss’s (Mark Margolis) son. As revenge, Margolis has assigned Pacino’s partner and best friend (Walken) to bump him off by the next morning (why Margolis can’t do the deed himself, or didn’t two decades ago, is never explained). Walken, at first irritated with and then enraptured by Pacino’s devil-may-care spirit, which never waned in prison, stalls for time and stews, even after confessing his task to Pacino, who gamely accepts his fate.
The rest of “Stand Up Guys” is a very low-flame affair. There are woefully trite jokes about septuagenarians. Too old for cocaine, Pacino snorts cataract and hypertension meds. Stricken with impotence at a makeshift whorehouse (where somehow the only prostitute on duty is a four-star Russian minx), Pacino then breaks into a pharmacy and ODs on Viagra, proving that even Al Pacino isn’t above an extended boner-protruding-from-hospital-sheets joke.
Even a welcome appearance from Alan Arkin, as the duo’s former, now-dying partner, is on the cutesy side. Wanting to “go out with a bang,” he embarks to the same bordello and finagles his way into an (off-screen) three-way with the Russian prostitute and the matron of the house (Lucy Punch, doing her best with a throwaway role). Naturally, they are wowed by his prowess.
When “Stand Up Guys” isn’t jokey, it’s tugging at the heartstrings. An impromptu funeral scene leaves the audience aching for macabre humor; instead, there are teary-eyed eulogies and life lessons. Walken’s bond with his waitress granddaughter (Addison Timlin) is thinly developed and mawkish, a wan method for giving his generally stony character some heart in the film’s third act.
At other times, “Stand Up Guys” is just plain lazy. In one scene, Walken warns Pacino about stealing some deadly mafiosos’ automobile; two seconds later, he’s totally on-board for a high-speed highway joyride. The sound editing is noticeably amateurish. For instance, none of the off-screen bordello trysts are heard by characters in adjoining rooms, but later on, a thug’s wails, as he’s tortured in his second-floor apartment, are audible on the street below. That scene, by the way, is totally gratuitous, its sole purpose to allow a very secondary character (Vanessa Ferlito, as a rape victim of said thugs) the chance to inflict baseball bat revenge.
The movie has some small pleasures. Pacino and Walken’s growly New Yawk cadences, their slippery drawing-out of even the most basic sentences, can still bring the occasional smile to movie-goers. Talents like these can score with mediocre wise-guy lines such as “Your place…looks…like where I just came from” (Pacino) and “These guys are the kind of guys who take your kidneys out, don’t even sell ‘em” (Walken). It’s a little embarrassing watching Pacino resort to lame double-entendres and showy dance moves, but Walken holds his own as the straight man, and having grown more iguana-like with age, his scaly skin pulled tightly around his enervated scowl, he’s always fascinating to watch.
Still, you can’t help wondering how much better “Stand Up Guys” could have been if the roles were reversed. Pacino is a reliable live wire—the scene where he bribes a bewildered priest in a confession booth is a hoot—but he’s also been a sturdily funny straight man, even in second-rate outings (just watch him react to the madness around him in “Sea of Love”.) Watching Pacino cut loose on the dance floor with a nubile bar-goer (in one of several lame nods to “Scent of a Woman”), you keep wanting Walken to shake off his preoccupations and boogie, finger-snapping and head-tilting style, the way he did in “King of New York.” Sadly, his character, like the film, remains timid and low-wattage.
On a final note, “Stand Up Guys” was released briefly last month in New York and Los Angeles, to allow for potential Academy Award nominations. Unless there’s a new category for “Best Phoned-it-in Actor,” Stand Up Guys will likely be unmentioned on Oscar night.