We forgive bad behaviour in the elderly rather the same way we forgive it in small children. With the wee ones, we take it as a welcome symptom of a promising life energy. In the oldies, we are just pleased there is still some energy left. The golden-age comedies of the moment – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet – always feature a lovable scamp.
And so it is possible to make a gentle, even sentimental, comedy about a couple of old criminals on one last shooting spree – stealing, maiming and murdering as they go ungently into that good night. Fisher Stevens’s Stand Up Guys reprises the familiar movie conceit of the last hurrah and also reminds us that every mob story from The Godfather to The Sopranos has told us it ain’t easy being crooked, but the film does give those well-worn devices a delicate little spin. The plotting may be highly contrived and the jokes about erectile dysfunction predictable, but fine performances highlight nice subtleties in both the relationships between the characters and the humour that drives the film.
Doc (Christopher Walken) is a former low-level mobster, living out his retirement as a Sunday painter in a modest apartment until the day he goes to meet the newly released convict Val (Al Pacino) at the prison gates. The aging colleagues are happy to be reunited – except that Doc’s last assignment from the mob boss Claphands (Mark Margolis) is a hit on his old pal. (Twenty-eight years previously Val had the misfortune to be overseeing a gun fight in which Claphands’s son was killed; the boss has decided to let Val suffer his long imprisonment before he has him executed.)
And so begins Val’s first and last night of freedom, with the requisite visit to a whorehouse hugely enlivened by Lucy Punch’s tooth-sucking, four-eyed madam. The pair then break into a drugstore to procure some Viagra and blood-pressure meds, steal a fancy car, spring the emphysematic Hirsch (Alan Arkin) from a seniors’ home so he can drive it, revisit the whore house, rescue a damsel in distress and kneecap a few low-lifes – before morning, and Claphands’s demanding henchmen, arrive.
It’s great fun watching both Pacino play the vulgar, swaggering Val – for once, he keeps his performance, if not his priapism, in his pants – and Arkin’s take on the less demanding Hirch, but the real treat here is the understated Walken as Doc, the gentleman thug. Switching seamlessly from ruthless expediency to gracious propriety, Walken creates a rather touching portrait of a man whose professional discipline never abandons him as he longs for peace but returns to violence. There is some very quiet black comedy here that makes this old bad guy so easy to forgive.