Watching the trailer for Going in Style, it’s easy to dismiss this as another wacky movie putting old actors in an absurd situation suited for much younger people. Such a concept works even better if you put famous names with established careers in the lead roles.
Morgan Freeman has done this a few times now, starring in movies such as Last Vegas and The Bucket List, despite being prominent enough to still take roles in blockbusters and dramas, albeit not leading roles. The same could be said for co-star Michael Caine, though maybe less so for Alan Arkin. (Hey, Arkin won an Academy Award 10 years ago, so he’s not weighing down this trio.)
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Going in Style is that Robert De Niro or Jack Nicholson didn’t have roles in this film either. Maybe it could have been an Ocean’s Eleven for the over-70 set. But this is a remake of a 1979 movie (if you knew that, congratulations) starring George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasburg. Since that’s not exactly a cherished or well-remembered film, however, director Zach Braff and writer Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures), could seemingly do whatever they wanted with the story.
The similarities that the remake and original share is the main characters’ dissatisfaction with getting older and their decision to rob a bank to solve their problems. But that’s essentially where the commonalities end. Where the original crew decided to “do a stick-up” out of boredom more than anything else, the 2017 version provides a much clearer, compelling motivation for becoming bank robbers, one that’s painfully resonant with what’s going on in the world today.
Joe (Caine), Willie (Freeman) and Albert (Arkin) are seemingly enjoying their lives in retirement. No, maybe it’s not great, relegated to associating largely with people of their own age at a community center. But the three live comfortably due to their pensions and have each other’s friendship. Willie and Albert are roommates, while Joe has taken in his daughter and granddaughter so that she can go to a better school.
But that slightly comfortable existence is in jeopardy with the rate on Joe’s mortgage spiking under the terms of his refinancing. With the monthly payments now far more than he can afford, Joe is in danger of losing his house in foreclosure. While visiting his bank to try and work something out, the branch is robbed by a trio of highly professional thieves who account for every aspect of the operation.
Already furious with the bank for duping him into a terrible mortgage, Joe is in awe of the bank robbers. Their coordinated effort made the heist look so easy. Faced with losing his house and not being able to provide for his daughter and granddaughter, he begins to think about pulling off a similar operation. Willie and Albert rightly think he’s nuts and mock him for being so silly.
Then the three of them are victimized by their former employer when the steel company they worked for is bought out by an international conglomerate and decides to move manufacturing overseas. Everyone at the current plant will soon be out of a job, and the buyout has frozen all pension plans. Joe, Willie and Albert are all about to have their retirement income taken away. Suddenly, Joe’s idea doesn’t seem so crazy.
The final bit of motivation needed is their own bank being the financial institution that will pay off the steel company’s debts with the money that was supposed to fund their pensions. With a branch of the bank in their neighborhood, going through with a robbery will feel like personal revenge. Joe then attempts to find a connection to a criminal element who would know something about robbing banks through his deadbeat son-in-law (Peter Serafinowicz) who sells pot for a living.
Yes, everything comes together just a bit too easily for the elderly trio. Joe’s son-in-law happens to know just the guy who knows how to rob banks (John Ortiz) and tutors the three of them in the art of efficiency. There’s a bit of a training montage as the fellas get in shape and do enough practice runs to turn a five-minute stroll into a tighter, three-minute operation that might actually be pulled off in time to elude police.
Perhaps the biggest fear from Going in Style shouldn’t be whether or not it’s a good movie, but that it might give people the idea that it’s not so difficult to rob a bank. This isn’t the high-rolling, intricate, computer and schematic driven heist seen in the Ocean’s Eleven movies. This is about knowing just enough to get money out of the teller drawers, timing how long it takes for the police to arrive, and ultimately taking advantage of no one wanting to get hurt and insurance covering whatever money is taken from the bank.
Hey, if three guys in their mid-to-late-70s can pull if off, why not us? But that probably doesn’t give enough credit to Melfi’s script, depicting the three friends coming up with a decent scheme to create an alibi and accounting for their whereabouts on surveillance footage while the robbery is taking place. Yes, it ultimately depends on some luck, but that adds to the drama of this movie’s central question: Could these guys really get away with this?
What’s most important is that Going in Style treats its characters with respect. Sure, there’s some making fun of their age and how old people are generally treated that plays for laughs. But the movie isn’t mocking these three gentlemen at all. Each of them is surprisingly well-formed with distinct traits that add something to the movie and makes their friendship relatable.
Having Caine, Freeman and Arkin as the leads provides major help with that, of course. But Braff is an assured enough director to let the story have those moments and never seems awed by his impressive cast. (Maybe he’s better off staying behind the camera for the future.) When the movie toys with your emotions a bit (perhaps a nod to the original movie’s darker sensibility), it’s a reminder of how much you’ve come to care about these guys in a very short time. It earns the emotion it’s going for by the end.