At one point in Fisher Stevens' charming comedy Stand Up Guys, professional thief Doc (Christopher Walken) looks on with amusement at the familiar sight of his old partners in crime -- tough guy Val (Al Pacino) and ace wheelman Hirsch (Alan Arkin) -- bickering over whether Hirsch should give his pants to a naked woman they've discovered. Doc's pleasure in that moment, registered in a loving close-up of Walken while the other two argue, is exactly how Stand Up Guys makes you feel.
The movie opens with Val (short for Valentine) getting out of jail after serving 28 years for a botched robbery. During his long term, he never gave up the names of his accomplices; that includes his best friend Doc, who is there to pick up Val when he's released from the big house. They head out to raise as much hell as their aging bodies will allow, and in the process they rescue Hirsch, the third member of their old team, from a retirement home.
For all of their remarkably enjoyable misadventures -- which include multiple visits to a brothel, meals at Doc's favorite diner, stealing a sports car, and helping a woman seek revenge on an attacker -- there's a consistent undertone of melancholy that runs throughout Noah Haidle's compact, effective script. Doc has been ordered by a ruthless mob boss to kill Val by 10 the next morning in retaliation for the kingpin's son dying in the botched robbery. So, as funny as the movie is, the center of it is about death. These three aging men want one last chance to relive old thrills and settle personal affairs, and while that poignant sentiment never disappears, it also never overtakes the shaggy-dog charm of the storytelling or the performances.
If you're constructing the Mount Rushmore of American film actors from 1970 on, Al Pacino's face should be on it. Although his early masterworks were mostly evocations of quiet intensity, ever since Heat he's been caricatured for his screaming, over-the-top flamboyance. As Val, a character who likes to talk, those showman-like tendencies are certainly there in Pacino's performance; he gives off that buzz that great thespians can have when it's evident how much they love acting. However, because Val is a gravelly voiced, potbellied older man, Pacino slows everything down, and that decision allows the viewer one of the few chances to see the best of both young and old Al in a single performance -- showcased most prominently in a scene in which Val makes a memorably funny and moving confession to a priest.
Christopher Walken has made a career out of playing, for lack of a better word, "otherness." His dancer's grace and odd inflections make it hard to take your eyes or ears off of him, but he rarely gets credit for being a remarkable acting partner. His distinct creative choices aren't made to grab the spotlight, but to keep every scene and every line fresh for his co-stars. He's mostly playing the straight man to Pacino's Val throughout Stand Up Guys, but he's also the movie's heart because Doc actually has to make the central dramatic choice in the story. For someone who so easily seems to represent strangeness, Walken reveals his characters' sad souls with little more than a twinkle in his eye or a balletic, unexpected dance step. If nothing else, Stand Up Guys is a master class in acting whenever these two share the screen, regardless of whether Val and Doc are robbing a drugstore for Viagra, negotiating with hookers, or sharing their deepest fears.
Just as you've been lulled into the peerless rhythms of Pacino and Walken's conversations, in comes Arkin, who gets not only the funniest scene in the movie (it involves a return to the brothel), but brings yet another kind of energy to the proceedings. Arkin's trademark grumpy sarcasm isn't absent, but he tones it down since Hirsch feels genuine pleasure to be out and about with his old friends, and because he's still mourning the death of his wife years after her passing.
For a film about coming to terms with death, Stand Up Guys is funnier than you might expect, and never once sinks into sentimental treacle. That's a testament to both first-time feature screenwriter Noah Haidle and director Fisher Stevens for keeping the flow of the story efficient but not hurried, and to the phenomenal talent of three actors doing what they do best. At one point, Val says to Hirsch that this big night out is better now that they're older because they can really appreciate it, and it's hard not to think that Pacino is speaking for all three of them as actors as much as he is for the characters.