Movie review: ‘Tough Guys’

I enjoyedtTough Guys” when it came out in 1986 and I should have left it in the memory vault. Having enjoyed the careers of Burt Lancaster and especially Kirk Douglas (who doesn’t remember “Spartacus”?), it was a silly romp with a nice underlying message about age, aging and the passage of time. Both guys did a good job, but if you watch it today, you’ll most likely wish you kept a good memory about it and not what you’ll get watching it again in the new millennium.

‘Tough Guys’
(1986; 104 minutes; rated PG; directed by Jeff Kanew and starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charles Durning and Dana Carvey)


(NOTE: I expanded this review on Nov. 27, 2015, with some additional opinion – none of the original changed – and updated some links and corrected a few typos.)

I lucked out recently when “Tough Guys,” the Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas vehicle from 1986, was on one of the cable movie channels. I snagged on the DVR and was looking forward to enjoying it again since I hadn’t seen it since it was in theaters nearly 28 years ago. Well, it remains OK, but wasn’t as great as I remembered and doesn’t hold up well. Some things are best left to a nice memory.


Tough Guys” is the then-becomes-now story of a couple of criminals with Lancaster playing “Harry Doyle” and Douglas playing “Archie Long.” They’ve been in jail for 30 years for the last train robbery in U.S. history (although they’re called the best bank robbers ever) and are now getting out and finding a completely different world – at least the world as it was in 1986, which makes it almost a period piece today.

Lancaster is smooth and sophisticated one, while Douglas shows off his older physique while lifting weights, and the duo has to adjust to a modern world and it isn’t going to be easy. With the exception of a couple of scenes (and these are really good), the film generally comes off today as too dated and has lost much of its punch. I guess the best way to describe “Tough Guys” is that there is a ton of potential, but very little of it realized.

Lancaster and Douglas take different paths coming out of prison: Lancaster, who is the older of the two, is shunted off to a retirement home while Douglas gets shoved into the wonderful world of minimum wage jobs. Neither can handle either one well, especially as they are continually pursued by a myopic would-be killer who holds a grudge for a reason that neither Lancaster or Douglas can remember or figure out.

Lancaster is the better of the two here as he is the calm side of the duo. He leads a neat revolt at the retirement home and, like Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” is the brains and voice of reason over Douglas’ aggression. Still, Lancaster has done much better (say in a smaller part in “Local Hero” – click here for my review – or as a headliner in “From Here to Eternity”). Lancaster’s talent is obvious, but also his age here (he was 73 when the film came out). He was also in “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” and “Airport.”

Douglas, who of course was “Spartacus,” plays the aggressive side of the pair. He works out (although a modern gym has female distractions in Spandex) and enjoys a good fight. He’s also good-hearted and works hard to convey a range of emotions. However, just as with Lancaster, he has done much better. Douglas was also in “The Fury,” a TV movie called “Victory at Entebbe” and “The Final Countdown” (click here for my review).

The best scene in the film is when Douglas goes into a bar for a quick beer and strikes up a conversation another man. They talk about music and finally the man offers to dance with Douglas. It’s a gay bar! The scene is handled well especially in 1986 and one that could be embarrassing when watched today (it isn’t).

The second best has the best performance by a supporting actor: Steven Memel as “Derek.” You only see him on a TV screen (he’s the sales person in a clothing store where Douglas is buying new clothes for a date with a younger woman). Memel is delightfully droll as the new wave punk salesman and manages to convey more emotion in a few brief moments where you only see his face than pretty much all the rest of the cast does throughout the rest of the film. Memel was in “Savage Justice” in a brief career of 11 acting credits, including one for a soap opera.

Eli Wallach plays “Leon B. Little,” who shows up when the guys get out of prison … except he wants to kill them. However, Wallach is both unlucky and blind as a bat without his bottle-thick lenses. It takes until late in the film for everyone to figure out why he wants to kill the duo.

Wallach eases through the role and it is the second best supporting character. He does the best work of establishing his motivated, agitated character and keeping it up right through his last scene. Wallach, who has great one-liners in this film, was also in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” “The Godfather: Part III” and “The Deep.”

A youthful “Saturday Night Live” Dana Carvey plays “Richie Evans,” who is a fan of the two criminals and also is their parole officer. It’s a bland character, but Carvey brings some energy to it and nearly manages to make it noteworthy. Carvey has also been in “Wayne’s World” and its sequel playing “Garth Algar” as well as “Little Nicky” and “This is Spinal Tap.”

Finally, you find veteran character actor Charles Durning here as “Deke Yablonsky.” He’s the cop who put them away 30 years ago and now finds himself at the end of a career being treated with contempt by much younger cops and looks to regain his fame by arresting the guys again. Durning dispatches the role as necessary and with his usual professionalism. He has also been in TV’s “Evening Shade” and movies including “The Sting” and “Tootsie.” He died in 2012 at the age of 89.

At the end the duo decides to rob the train again on its retirement run and make their way to Mexico. Wallach joins sides with them and they hijack the train to make their getaway. “The Fabulous Thunderbirds’” “Tough Enough” plays as the credits roll. “Tough Guys” has some heart but not the strength of longevity.

Tough Guys” was the 43rd ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1986 with $21.4 million in receipts, according to Box Office Mojo. It was only marginally acceptable to investors since it cost $18 million to produce, according to Wiki. It was tough competition that year with the top two films (in order): “Top Gun” and “Crocodile Dundee” with $176.8 million and $174.8 million respectively. Other films from the year that I have reviewed include Rodney Dangerfield’s “Back to School” (sixth with $91.2 million – click here for my review) and “Ruthless People” (ninth with $71.6 million – click here for my review).

Assorted cast notes (via

  • Adolph Caesar, who was nominated for an Oscar the year before “Tough Guys” for his exceptional work in “A Soldier’s Story,” was set to play “Leon B. Little” but he died of a heart attack at the age of 52 and was replaced by Wallach.
  • It is the seventh film to pair Lancaster and Douglas.
  • Members of the musical group “Red Hot Chili Peppers” play themselves in the film.
  • Finally and directly from “After the police fire at the train, Sgt. Deke Yablonski (Charles Durning) says, ‘What is this, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?’. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas both starred in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957); Lancaster played Wyatt Earp, and Douglas played Doc Holliday in the classic western.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2015.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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full and clear credit is given to Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples
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