By SEAN DALY
Times Staff Writer
Like cheering on a weathered, leathered Keith Richards as he riffs out Jumpin' Jack Flash, there is a warm, rooting joy in watching wily pros Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin strut and shoot through the crime comedy Stand Up Guys. The product may not be as fresh and invigorating as in the famed actors' salad days, but man, it's still cool to see these sly dogs at play, isn't it?
Nonchalantly directed by Fisher Stevens, best known for his premium acting in '80s robot comedy Short Circuit (cough, cough), Stand Up Guys ultimately stuffs a smart premise with too many clunky old-coot gags and too few moments of inspiration, the kind that bloom when the stars aren't shackled to convention and artifice. But if you can endure the insulting Viagra scene ("Mount Everest just moved into my pants," barks Al Pacino doing his best Al Pacino impression), a few nice surprises await at film's end.
With a ghostly pallor but a tender, understated grace, the 69-year-old Walken plays Doc, a former crook who now spends his time painting and chatting amiably with a young waitress at a local restaurant. When former associate, and best pal, Val (72-year-old Pacino, shlumping like a sitcom version of Midnight Cowboy's Ratso Rizzo) finishes serving 28 years in prison, Doc is there to pick him up and show him a good time.
Well, a good time for 24 hours at least: At day's end, by orders of a Mob boss who's still holding a grudge, Doc has to kill Val, who catches on to his impending demise soon enough.
But this is a comedy (sort of) more than a drama (for the most part) or a thriller (well, there are a couple of shoot-outs). So Val wants to party his last hours away, including visiting an unlikely brothel (cue the bad Viagra joke) and then snorting Doc's cataract medicine off a bartop. Not sure if that last bit was comedy, drama or thriller; it was just uncomfortable and sad and made me dislike Pacino's Val, although I'm pretty sure the director wants you to love him.
But I digress: The movie perks up when Val and Doc steal (just for fun, and it is fun) a gorgeous black Dodge Challenger and bust Arkin's wisecracker, Hirsch, out of an old-age home. Hirsch drove the getaway car in the old days, so of course we get the prolonged cutesy hijinks of Arkin, 78, peeling out and losing the cops. He visits that brothel, too, and the hookers are stunned by his prowess. Credit Arkin's classically dry line delivery for making it palatable.
Stevens keeps the shenanigans coming (the crooks find a naked girl in the stolen car's trunk, the crooks teach some young punks a thing or two, the crooks bury an old friend, the crooks buy suits), but the movie's most winning moments are when Stand Up Guys takes a second to breathe. There's a subtle running gag involving Val and Doc casually, but adeptly, breaking into storefronts whenever they need something (drugs, clothes). Not once do they rush or look over their shoulders.
After playing Val a little too much like Lenny to Walken's George, Pacino's character eventually smartens up enough to deliver a moving speech at a gravesite, showing that screenwriter Noah Haidle just might have chops after all. And when it turns out that the fresh-faced waitress Walken always visits is more than a pretty face, the lanky actor gives the movie true heart.
Not that Stand Up Guys goes out with a sniffle. The twisting finale is a redemptive blast, a blazing Butch-and-Sundance adios that will leave fans grinning. This movie doesn't get everything right, but in the end, it does remember to always respect its elders — especially when they're packing heat.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.