Stand Up Guys

Black suits you

Walken, Arkin, PacinoImagine a film similar to Superbad, but with male retirees as a target audience.  Now picture the lead characters as people who in their younger days aspired to be Michael Corleone and/or any of the dual-pistol-wielding badasses of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow films.  You’d expect the result to be an amusing admixture somewhere between a crime film and a buddy comedy, right?  If you answered yes, Stand Up Guys will not surprise you, but if you’re still with me so far, you’ll be happy to get exactly what you expect.

The set-up involves Doc (Christopher Walken) ponderously puttering around before picking up Val (Al Pacino), an old criminal accomplice, from prison, where the latter has just finished serving a 28-year sentence for accidentally killing the evil progeny of criminal mastermind Claphands (Mark Margolis), whose name signifies that he…really wants approval, I guess.  The duo hang around Doc’s apartment and deliver some stiff dialogue (skirting Island Syndrome for the first few minutes), and then Val decides he will do some partying to celebrate his release, even though the Doc he once knew is now an old man with old man habits and an early bedtime.  Soon comes the kicker that gets the main story arc moving: Doc has been ordered by Claphands to kill Val posthaste and deliver his body.  Apparently, the SOB wanted Val to serve every minute of his sentence before being dealt the ultimate payback.  Doc, however, (despite not seeing Val for 28 years) is gentler than he once was, and has fond memories of Val, whom he now realizes is his only friend.  Val, it turns out, only did all of this partying because he suspected he was to be killed by Doc, and wonders why his friend hasn’t just gotten it over with already.

The movie is directed by Fisher Stevens, who guest-starred as the ill-fated George Minkowski on LOST.  Stevens structures his movie like any other buddy comedy: through a series of vignettes involving the same protagonists and multiple supporting characters who only appear in their respective segments (I did the same thing with Slices a few years ago, when I was required to follow a set structure, and it’s surprisingly difficult to pull off, namely because you have to justify each segment’s existence in the overall plot; many are inevitably cut).   Claphands breathes down Doc’s neck and makes clear that he must kill Val before 10am or suffer the consequences.  With a full night of freedom left, Doc and Val go on an adventure that begins when Val steals a “sweet-ass” car.  They soon rescue their former getaway driver, Hirsch (Alan Arkin) from a retirement home, and he immediately goes from breathing through an oxygen tank to whipping across the highway at 90+ miles-an-hour.  From here, I got the sense that there were some script revisions concerning how disparate and madcap each mini-adventure would be.  Perhaps Stevens realized he had Walken, Pacino, and Arkin in the same movie, and decided to do everything possible with them.  This leads us to some genre sampling, including Ferrell/Apatow-style screwball comedy (brothel humor, the inevitable old-man-on-Viagra joke, and a pup-tent erection); GoodFellas-era Scorsese black humor (a naked woman is found in the trunk of a stolen car and the gang must decide what to do with her), which leads to a bizarrely lighthearted and totally-played-for-laughs version of the infamous rape-and-revenge genre films (aforementioned woman reveals that she was kidnapped, sexually abused, and released by a gang, and the Stand Up Guys, being stand-up guys, beat the crap out of the gang and allow the woman to do what she will with them afterward); Tarantino-ish table chat scenes (which come off more as deliberate opportunities for these three veteran actors to be onscreen together and play off of each other for longer); and even Hong Kong action for a short time, in a finale that delivers not enough and possibly too much at the same time, but I leave that to you.

The supporting cast includes Vanessa Ferlito (!), who I haven’t seen since Death Proof, and whose effortless natural strength (not to mention her wonderful Italian attitude, a woman after my own heart) can steal any show, even when performing with these guys.  Julianna Margulies plays Nina, a doctor and the daughter of Hirsch, who gets a bit more screen time than most of the supporting women.  Lucy Punch, who also appeared in Grindhouse, plays Wendy, the proprietor of the brothel (previously owned by her mother, the former romantic partner of Val), and has a warm presence in the movie until a somewhat ludicrous scene involving Arkin’s character, which would be funny if not for how obligatory it seems – the “feeble old man happens to be a sex god” joke has worn out for me, sorry.  It’s old hat and reliably disrespectful to the women involved.

Perhaps most interesting among the supporting characters is Alex (Addison Timlin), a waitress who happens to be working at the diner (and busing the exact table at which the group sits) every time they come in over the course of nearly 24 hours.  She’s young, pretty, and loves chatting with Doc, who sits in her section every single morning.  She appears as a sort of mystical character, is always at the perfect calm, and is the only character who can draw out the softer details of Doc’s character, and thus convinces us to sympathize with him throughout (not that Walken’s acting doesn’t do a good enough job).  Her true identity is, like most things in this story, what you would expect, but the film’s adherence to structure is what keeps it from skirting farce (despite a Surprise Demise in the middle of the story and the aforementioned finale).

Al Pacino needs to choose his roles carefully now, and acting with Walken and Arkin again is a good one.  His voice is gravely and despondent.  He knows time is running out, and his more emotional scenes hit home, in spite of the fact that the “ticking timer” trope is shopworn and synthetic.  It means something to us only when it means something to the characters, and there’s a good sense of urgency here thanks to the secondary situation: not only does Val only have a few hours to live, but he and Doc only have a few hours to rekindle their friendship.  Walken, who had a good year in 2012, continues to play roles he’s comfortable in, but that don’t bring him into the territory of self-parody.

Throughout the story, characters reminisce for the sake of depth and exposition.  It’s worth noting that when the guys reminisce about their back-in-the-day criminal escapades, it’s nowhere near as interesting as when they (and other characters) reminisce about meaningful memories together.

A few bafflers: why/how does Claphands, a criminal mastermind with tons of money, keep his office in a building that looks condemned?  Why does he only seem to have two henchmen?  Why aren’t his henchmen imposing?  If he only has two non-imposing henchmen and his fortress is in the middle of the (nameless) city, why is Doc so petrified of him?  Why are the owners of the “sweet-ass” car, who are purportedly so tough and infamous that they don’t even lock their car because no one would be dumb enough to steal it, a bunch of wiry white dudes who end up easily pushed over?  Why is Alex trusting enough to go alone to a stranger’s apartment?  Again, it goes back to why most things in this movie happen: because it’s necessary to the film’s House of Cards plot, which would collapse should one detail be altered.  If you’re involved in the story and willing to go with it, none of this is very distracting.

The film’s title is one of those Road Sign Game opportunities.  Place punctuation, and the whole meaning changes, and you don’t feel bad about it because the words didn’t make much sense in the first place (remember “No, U turn”?).  Stand Up Guys doesn’t refer to the name of their gang; it’s a term referring to a responsible person, which Val claims to be, and which Doc certainly strives to be.  Do they succeed?  If you don’t think so, you can always call it Stand Up, Guys!  They do sit around a lot.

Stand Up GuysStand Up Guys (2013); written by Noah Haidle; directed by Fisher Stevens; starring Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, and Vanessa Ferlito.

The Other Guys

A ballet of emotions

The Other Guys is a buddy cop/double act comedy featuring an unlikely cast of household names.  If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s 2006 crime masterpiece, The Departed, the obvious written-for-certain-actors roles of The Other Guys may be all too apparent (in a good way, however).  Mark Wahlberg plays Terry Hoitz, an obvious reference to his Departed character Sean Dignam.  Wahlberg spends the majority of the film yelling, while Will Ferrell gets top billing as Allen Gamble, a nondescript police desk-jockey who idolizes the department’s supercops, Danson and Highsmith (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson).  Rounding out the main cast is Michael Keaton, Jackson’s co-star from Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, this time playing Hoitz/Gamble’s police captain who moonlights as a manager at Bed, Bath and Beyond and inadvertently quotes TLC songs at least four times.

The story follows Hoitz and Gamble, “the other guys” (as labeled by narrator Ice-T) attempting to become the department’s star detectives after Danson and Highsmith inexplicably leap to their deaths.  The man they’re after, David Ershon (Steve Coogan) is a multi-billionaire attempting to cover his company’s losses.  A very interesting end-credits sequence features statistics about AIG, Enron and other companies, as well as depressing numbers about CEO money and average employee treatment.

The film generates some good laughs, and the now-famous improvisation of Will Ferrell takes center stage in a few good scenes, particularly when Hoitz attempts to intimidate Gamble.  The film’s biggest gut-buster occurs when Hoitz decides to play “good cop , bad cop” with Ershon, but Gamble mishears it as “bad cop, bad cop” and throws a screaming fit.  Wahlberg’s character is a great satire of violent police heroes, in one scene shouting “Colombian drug lords!” before single-handedly defeating a group of masked bikers.  Ferrell asks, “How did you know that?”

There are a few good cameos, the best of which is Derek Jeter (who plays himself).  I won’t spoil his reason for being in the film.

But now for my Statler and Waldorf section.  This film centers around pairs of characters.  Hoitz/Gamble, Gamble/his wife (Eva Mendes), Danson/Highsmith, as well as a pair of rival cops (Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans, Jr.), Gamble’s ex-wife and new husband, the bad guy (Ray Stevenson) and his shockingly attractive femme fatale sidekick, and so on.  There are a few too many.  My biggest issue with this: why get The Rock and Sam Jackson to play the supercops only to have them die and be replaced by two characters who are trying to do the exact same thing?  The situation is presented as humorous, but it’s actually a bit of a downer and the film takes awhile to recover.  It’s also a shame because Jackson and Johnson are given very little time to act together, and they’re an inspired duo.  Additionally, there are occasional awkward scenes in which director/writer Adam Mckay, who is accustomed to Ferrell’s improv gems, clearly wrote no dialogue, relying on Ferrell’s humor to save the film.  It doesn’t always strike gold, particularly in his scenes with Eva Mendes.  There are also a few too many jokes at the expense of women, which is par for the course in a movie about cops, but three of them within a minute or two is overkill.

Much like the year’s earlier buddy cop film, Cop-Out, Tracy Morgan appears.  This time, refreshingly, he doesn’t say anything.  Funnily enough, the film is narrated by an uncredited Ice-T who wrote the controversial song “Cop Killer,” and now plays a cop on Law & Order: SVU.  Sorry, no punchline for this one.

The Other Guys (2010); written by Chris Henchy and Adam Mckay; directed by Adam Mckay; starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Steve Coogan and Michael Keaton.