Tough Guys

toughguysIf you look at the new fall schedule of TV shows, you will see an unmistakable trend emerge: Old people are in.

The impressive popular (and Emmy-winning) success of such series as “The Golden Girls” and “Murder, She Wrote” has been a refreshing contradiction to the theory that all television must be for teenagers, about teenagers, and sometimes seemingly by teenagers. Now network heads are following suit, and a passel of aging character actors are getting new leases on their careers.

Moviemakers, too, are hip to these trends. And so it makes perfect sense that two spry actors, Burt Lancaster (age 72) and Kirk Douglas (age 69), should team up to exploit this sudden fascination with maturity.

Lancaster and Douglas are old teammates anyway, having appeared in seven films together, including the minor-classic film noir I Walk Alone (1947), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and Seven Days in May (1964). Surely no one else could have filled the tailor-made roles in the new film Tough Guys, or established the immediate chemistry between their characters, as well as these two veterans.

At the beginning of the film, they’re getting released from prison after 30 years, for pulling a daring train robbery, the last of its kind. They enter a modern world that is quite alien to them—a world that moves at a faster pace, and one which treats its older citizens in often dehumanizing ways.

They’re also forced to split up, as part of their parole. That doesn’t last long, of course, but Lancaster is put in a retirement home, where the employees humiliate the residents; Douglas lands a room in a seedy hotel and tries to find work in a variety of odd and inappropriate places.

The predictable upshot of all this is that these boys get fed up, and fast, with this new world, and go back to doing what they do best—robbery.

Even with its occasional angry asides about the poor treatment of old people in America, Tough Guys is very much a comedy (directed by Jeff Kanew, of Revenge of the Nerds). It is, in fact, too broad and silly for its own good, and the screenplay by James Cruickshank and James Orr plays as though it were written by committee. Every possible way for Burt and Kirk to put a cute spin on their encounters has been included, and many situations are all too familiar.

Most of the supporting characters are stale, too, with Charles Durning playing the crusty cop who put the tough guys away 30 years ago—and who now finds himself an anachronism, just like them. Eli Wallach does unleash some mad nonsense as a mysterious hit man who insists on stalking Lancaster and Douglas, though they can’t imagine who he is.

It’s not much of a movie, by any means, but the two stars, and the power they carry with them, almost make it worthwhile; sheerly because of their iconographic impact, the film has some very gratifying moments. Douglas gets most of the funny stuff, and he displays as much energy as ever. His innocent saunter into a gay bar, and the realization that the ol’ neighborhood tavern isn’t what it used to be, is priceless.

Lancaster plays it extremely cool, sometimes almost too much so. But he can still breathe the line, “My, you look snazzy,” as no one else could.

And he gets to shut down a truculent Douglas at one point with this bon mot: “Keep it up, and I’ll put another hole in that chin of yours.” Forty years of movies have gone by, waiting for someone to say that to Kirk Douglas. Tough Guys deserves a nod just for gathering a few such moments of grace.

First published in the Herald, October 1986

Not a great movie, for sure. Lancaster died in 1994, Douglas is still with us, and still looking like he could put Sylvester Stallone in a choke hold while biting through Arnold Schwarzenegger’s neck. Dude is tough.

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