When you have a great screenplay, the talent shows up. Screenwriter Noah Haidle has crafted a story that is sure to become a classic. Stand Up Guys stars Academy Award winners Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin in an action-comedy about senior citizen gangsters reunited after one of them spent 28 years in prison.
Val (Al Pacino) is the story’s protagonist. As the film begins we see him being processed out of prison, intercut with scenes of his best friend Doc (Christopher Walken) preparing to pick him up. When they get back to Doc’s apartment, we get a hint of the films central problem. Doc has a gun and it looks like he wants to shoot Val, but he hesitates. Instead of shooting Val, Doc takes him out on the town for a night of good times which turn into comic misadventures. Along the way, they find their old getaway car driver, Hirsch (Alan Arkin).
Early in the evening, Val stops at a church for confession. The priest tells him that “three Hail Marys” are not going to earn him enough forgiveness for what he has done. Though Mary can’t save Val, as the three old hoods proceed through the evening, they meet other ladies who help them find redemption.
Pacino, Walkin and Arkin are supported in small but memorable roles by Julianna Margulies, Lucy Punch, Vanessa Ferlito and Addison Timlin. The ladies’ characters serve to reconnect the trio with their youth and their mortality and give them a chance to set right some of their past sins.
One of their attempts at recapturing their youth sends Val to the hospital (with one of those side-effects they warn you about in Viagra commercials). There they encounter Nurse Nina Hirsch (Margulies), the daughter of their driver. We are given a look into their souls, as they recollect Nina’s tenth birthday. “Remember,” Doc says, “I tossed you in the air.” Nina recalls that it made her feel like she was free and flying. Later, they share a special moment with her and her father which reveals Val’s deeper side.
When they visit the local whorehouse, Val swears he remembers the madame (Punch). Doc intervenes and says that Val is actually remembering her mother. Later, on another visit, Punch’s character helps Hirsch mark something off his bucket list.
Addison Timlin plays the waitress where Val and Doc go to eat several times during the night. She has a special relationship with Doc that she doesn’t know about, but that is revealed in the third act. That relationship provides a moral catharsis for Doc.
Lastly, Ferlito, enters the film when the boys discover her tied up in the trunk of the car they’ve stolen. She provides one more way for Val and Doc to earn a little grace before they go.
The idea for the story came to screenwriter Haidle one day as he was riding his bike in Coney Island and saw three old gangster-type looking guys sitting on a park bench drinking coffee out of paper cups. He was imagining what their lives were like and this inspired him to write about what life would be like in a gangster’s golden years.
Director Fisher Stevens Chats About His Movie
After an online showing of the film, director Fisher Stevens held a press conference, answering questions for me and the other journalists who had screened the film.
There is a lot of humor in the film, but according to Stevens, Pacino and Walken were not trying to be funny. “It was important to ground this entire script in reality,” he said. “That was the only way for it to work. We rehearsed and had long discussions about keeping everything real, even when it comes to these hyper-blown situations. Fortunately, I had the greatest actors in the world to work with and they only know how to do things real. When it felt false, we did another take.”
I asked Stevens if directing Walken and Pacino was a challenge. He said that he directed them in different ways. “Before we started shooting,” he said, “ I knew Al much better than Chris and I spent a bit more time going over the script at the beginning with Al. So I felt a bit more at ease directing Al at first. With Chris, I had to feel my way around at the beginning but they both welcomed direction. However, sometimes they would disagree with me. But ultimately, they would always try the way I wanted it, the way I liked it. They ultimately gave me many different varieties of takes.”
I was curious as to whether Pacino and Walken improvised much, or did they stick to the script? Stevens recalled that one scene was completely improvised. “The scene in the whorehouse where Al and Chris talk about penis enhancement. I overheard them having this discussion about mutual friends and then said, ‘We have to get this on film.’ So we did.”
The film takes place in the present – there is a sequence involving the results of taking too much Viagra – but it has a vintage feel to it. Stevens explained that he was inspired by many films from the 1970s including Dog Day Afternoon, Five Easy Pieces, Straight Time, and The Dirty Dozen. “I loved the films from the 70s,” he said, “because they were about characters and not so much about big plot points and big set pieces. I made sure there were no cell phones, no computers, nothing very modern in Stand Up Guys except for the car they steal. Most of the clothes were vintage that the actors wore. The colors were muted. It was like time had forgotten this town and these people.”
Another vintage touch is the original music. Stevens is admittedly obsessed with music. “The music is one of my favorite things about this movie,” Stevens siad. “We have Muddy Waters, Baby Huey and Charles Bradley who’s a 70-year-old singer who has just been rediscovered. He’s amazing. Then there’s this guy, I don’t know if anyone has ever heard of him, named Jon Bon Jovi, Jon came up with some great stuff. His songs are great and he’s a nice dude, too. For Stand Up Guys he immersed himself in the script and wrote ‘Not Running Anymore’ and ‘Old Habits Die Hard.”
Don’t get the idea that this is On Golden Pond with a New York accent. Guns blaze and cars get chased. Ultimately, however, and this is what makes it good – it is a film about values. Stevens said, “I think the ultimate message of the film is to live life to the fullest everyday. Whether it’s your last or it’s not, being a loyal friend is more important than almost anything.”
Stand Up Guys is rated R and was released nationwide February 1.