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Watching Movies: "Stand Up Guys"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 1, 2013

Back in the ‘70s, Al Pacino was one of the heavyweights of the big screen. It felt as if he was in a constant series of grudge matches against the other greats of the era, that whatever Pacino did, he knew that Dustin Hoffman or Jack Nicholson was in another part of the multiplex, tearing up moviegoers and daring Pacino to top them. And any movie with one of those names in the credits was something you had to see.

Been a long time since things were that way, with these guys rarely inhabiting movies as good as their old ones, and performances often seeming to coast along dependent on the admiration of the audience. I think one reason DeNiro has been so praised for "Silver Linings Playbook" is that voters were glad to see him doing real work again. And when I saw the trailer for “Stand Up Guys,” the first thing that struck me was that Pacino was actually paying attention to his role – and that Christopher Walken, playing opposite, was reining in his worst impulses to match Pacino acting move for acting move.

I have since seen the movie, and in many respects it's not that good. The story drifts, and the dialogue is mannered in a way felt like Mamet Lite (although Mamet would have demanded a much touger ending) or second-tier Elmore Leonard (although Leonard would have come up with a much better plot). There were still times, even silly ones, when I just sat back and thought how fine it was to see Pacino and Walken remind us of their moves.

Pacino is a convict getting out of prison after 28 years, and picked up by his best friend (Walken), But Walken is also there in service of a mob boss with a vendetta against Pacino; if Walken does not murder Pacino, the boss will have Walken killed. Pacino is at first interested in enjoying his time outside -- said enjoyment involving a hooker -- but figures out pretty quickly what's on Walken's agenda. So he tries to enjoy his remaining hours, including by reconnecting with the two men's other best friend (Alan Arkin), who is ailing but still game.

If you read some of the negative reviews of the film, you will see some lamenting about crude humor, especially jokes built around Viagra. I was less concerned about that because these stand up guys are not for the most part deep thinkers; their needs are generally primal. When Pacino dogs Walken's apartment, part of his defense is that he has cable. But sex, fast (perhaps stolen) cars, a little action -- that's fun for these guys. They're not going to spend what could be their last moments on a discussion of geopoliticsn or French literature.

So they go on their way, which is sometimes amusing and sometimes just slow. We learn more about the guys' families. The mob boss and his minions are around. It doesn't add up to much but, man, did I like watching the actors work.

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