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‘Tough Guys’ (PG)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 08, 1986

Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster have worked together several times, in "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" and "Seven Days in May," among others, so you'd think that the idea of putting them together couldn't miss.

Think again.

In "Tough Guys," they play two old train robbers who, after spending 30 years in a cell together, are paroled into a world they no longer recognize. Archie (Douglas) proceeds through a variety of menial jobs; Harry (Lancaster), somewhat older, lives on Social Security in an old-age home that's more of a prison than the one he just left. Tired of being patronized and abused, the pair return to the thing they know best, teaming up for one last score.

You know something's wrong when screen writers James Orr and Jim Cruikshank have to jury-rig a couple of chase plots, involving an over-the-hill hit man (Eli Wallach) and an aging detective (Charles Durning) just to move things along.

And indeed, instead of real drama, Orr and Cruikshank come up with a skein of witless shtick. A cop harasses Harry for stepping on the grass; a bird dropping falls on the cop. A kid annoys Archie in an ice cream parlor; Archie throws a sundae in his face. Harry doesn't like the food at the old-age home; he dumps his plate on the attendant.

Most of the jokes, though, depend on a "Rip Van Winkle" notion -- the duo is surprised by how the world has changed -- which would make more sense if prisoners hadn't had windows to the outside world, such as television. What's worse, all these jokes reduce Archie and Harry to generic oldsters, and Orr and Cruikshank make only the most rudimentary attempts to characterize them further: Archie is more energetic, Harry more contemplative; Archie is a skirt-chaser, Harry a romantic.

When they're not making up their own crude jokes, Orr and Cruikshank steal other people's, and it doesn't help that director Jeff Kanew could make even fresh material seem familiar. Kanew's instinct is to broaden what should be delicate, to aim low and sink lower.

But the most obvious thing of all hardly occurred to either Kanew or his screen writers -- to look at what made Douglas and Lancaster unique in their long careers, and to try to work some drama and conflict out of that. Douglas fights gamely against the material -- he's determined to have fun with it, and at times, he has you joining in, too, by sheer dint of his personality. Lancaster, on the other hand, clearly threw in the towel long before shooting started. He's above this sort of thing, and he lets you know it.

"Tough Guys" would like to think it's making a statement about the way we treat our old, but the movie itself makes that statement far more eloquently, by paradoxical example -- its comedy is based on the shock of seeing two old men behave like jackasses. "Tough Guys" gives us two actors who, whatever their deficiencies, have generally displayed remarkable daring and integrity in choosing their roles. That they now find themselves grotesquely mired in a movie so crass may be seen as telling commentary on the state of mainstream Hollywood culture.

"Tough Guys" contains profanity, sexual themes and some nudity.

Copyright The Washington Post

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