When it comes to directors, there are only a handful that are truly household names, names that will sell you (or dissuade you) on a movie all by themselves. Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas (albeit a mixed bag of late), Ron Howard, and so forth. For every director whose movies are advertised as “the new film from director X”, there are several dozen whose names are simply discreetly put in the opening sequence of the movie and are completely omitted from the marketing. Sometimes this can be a good thing. In the case of Jeff Kanew, had I known to look him up, I would have seen a filmography that ranged from Revenge of the Nerds and Troop Beverly Hills at its dubious peak to, at the other end of the spectrum, V.I. Warshawski, a couple of late (read: lousy) National Lampoon movies, and whatever Jesus Sex Scandal is. It wouldn’t have filled me with enthusiasm for Tough Guys, is what I’m saying.
As it happens, all of the promotion (then and now) for this 1986 comedy is, appropriately, centered around its two stars: Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, in what would prove to be their final collaboration. Rather than a comedy built around stupidity or vulgarity, as one might expect from the rest of Kanew’s resume, we’re treated to an intelligent comedy about two men finding that the world has passed them by. Specifically, two ex-cons who have just finished a 30 year sentence for the last attempted train robbery in the United States.
Lancaster and Douglas play Harry Doyle and Archie Long, respectively. 30 years ago they attempted to rob the Gold Coast Flyer, and got caught in what was their first and only failure as robbers. Upon finally being released, they talk about what they’d like to do now that they’re finally free, but quickly find that the world they’re in is not the world they left decades ago. They get their first dose of reality from meeting their parole officer, Richie Evans, played by a very young Dana Carvey. This wasn’t Carvey’s first film role, but it appears to have been his first that wasn’t a bit part. Interestingly, Tough Guys could be considered Carvey’s breakout role, as it debuted a week before Carvey made his first “Saturday Night Live” appearance.
Richie, who is more of a fanboy than a harsh enforcer, explains the rules of their parole to Harry and Doyle. The two men’s lives outside prison are already arranged for them. Archie has a demeaning, low-paying job at an ice cream parlor, and until he receives his first paycheck, will be receiving welfare, which Archie finds mildly insulting. It’s worse for the slightly older Harry; being 72 years old, he’s passed the mandatory retirement age of 70. (This was an actual law at the time; an interesting contrast to today where many of us aren’t sure we’ll be able to retire by 70.) Even though he is healthy, and wants to work, he’s being put in a retirement home. Further, the two are not allowed to visit each other for the next three years due to the fear that they would be a bad influence on each other.
That rule, of course, lasts all of about three seconds, and their complacency with their new lives lasts only slightly longer. Harry tries to hold onto the past with the help of an old flame, but it’s hard to comport himself with dignity when the workers of the retirement home treat everyone there as invalid children, refusing to let them leave when they wish, dress as they wish, or eat solid food instead of succotash and creamed spinach. Archie tries to embrace the modern yuppie lifestyle, hooking up with a young woman at a gym and dressing in a leisure suit that would have been garish even at the height of 80s fashion. He winds up looking rather like what Hugh Hefner might look like if Hefner would ditch the bathrobe and put on some real clothes for a change. (Where he obtains the suit is one of the few flaws with this movie, for me; the tailor appears solely through a TV screen. Maybe that was a real thing in places like Beverly Hills, but I never saw anything like that during the 80s, so it made me feel a bit out of my own time. But it’s a brief and minor issue.) Try as he might to fit in, though, it quickly dawns on Archie that he doesn’t belong. He likes his old suit, hat, and tie, he likes his old music, and he doesn’t feel a connection to his young girlfriend. And he can’t control his temper when people at his succession of jobs don’t treat him with the respect he requires.
Respect is the driving force of this movie. It is the impetus for all of Harry and Archie’s actions, and the source of both the drama and the comedy. This isn’t their world any more. It’s loud and crass. There’s no respect for a couple of tough guys from yesterday. They actually foil a bank robbery, not because they object to the robbery, but because they object to the way the robbers go about it. They beat up a group of street thugs who disrespected them. Harry starts a small riot in the rest home cafeteria over a demand for real food. All their old contacts and friends are gone, their old hangouts have changed, and the news coverage of the Gold Coast Flyer’s impending retirement ceremony doesn’t even mention the two men who attempted the last train robbery on that very train.
And while they deal with the strangeness and indifference of this new world, their past isn’t leaving them alone either. Eli Wallach shows up repeatedly as a severely near-sighted hit man bound and determined to make good on a 30-year-old contract from a now-deceased client. Wallach steals every scene he’s in, and his hysterical antics are just underscored by the completely nonchalant way Harry and Archie deal with him every time. Meanwhile, they’re also being tailed by Sgt. Deke Yablonski (Charles Durning), who arrested them for their last heist. Yablonski provides a similar note to the gangsters; he’s been relegated to desk duty for the past several years, but he’s itching to do some field work again. He knows these guys, and he’s convinced that they can’t go straight, that sooner or later they’re going to commit a crime again.
He’s right, of course. The Gold Coast Flyer has one last trip to make, and Harry and Archie have one last chance to get it right, and prove that a couple of “Tough Guys” still have what it takes.
This is a tremendously fun movie with engaging characters who are portrayed by some of the most talented actors in the business. Though Harry and Archie are criminals, the viewers, like Richie, find themselves automatically sympathizing with them and cheering them on. Tough Guys doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention, but like its characters, it deserves some respect. It is hilarious, poignant, and full of action all at the same time, and I recommend it without reservation.