Lancaster And Douglas Still Tough Enough In The 1980’s


STREET DATE: May 30, 2017

As a possible Trivia Night question that might go something like “What 1986 fish-out-of-water comedy starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, as aging thieves released from prison after serving a 30-year sentence, features a performance from the Red Hot Chili Peppers?”, Kino Lorber’s upcoming Blu-ray proves essential viewing for at least answering that burning question. Capturing that strange moment in pop culture when two Hollywood legends could co-exist in a movie with a future super group a few years away from fame, 1986’s Tough Guys stars the granite-jawed, barrel-chested duo of Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in their seventh and final film together. The former of whom does indeed share a scene at a trendy post-punk nightspot called “Chainsaw” with the slam-dancing rhythms of the gym-chiseled, wardrobe-challenged quartet. What can one say? It was the 80’s.

Taking the time-warp premise of that trivia point further, this home video release roughly coincides with the 30th anniversary of the film’s original theatrical run, making Lancaster and Douglas’ characters’ own 30-year later release from jail near-proportional, at the moment of writing, to the 30-year gap existing now. So, for example, when Lancaster as 72-year-old Harry Doyle and Douglas as 67-year-old Archie Long cross a splattered wall of mural graffiti towards “the old neighborhood”, soon after being released from jail, our sympathies might more readily ally with 1956 than they ever would have in 1986. Scene-specifically opening on a close-up on a boom box blaring Janet Jackson’s “Nasty”, the testy pair, dressed at the height of circa 1956 fashion in double-breasted suits and snap-brim hats, are quickly accosted by and just as quickly dispose of a street gang who themselves appear – in dress and “attitude” – like background dancers in a Madonna video.

That the youthful latter are satisfyingly humiliated by the aged former is undoubtedly due, from our perspective, to the 80’s being just as ridiculous as the 50’s were “classy”. However, that the method of disposal – i.e., a swift kick to the gangleader’s crotch – plays nowhere near as “classy”, much less as fresh and funny, as it appeared in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), shows the possibly irreconcilable eras ultimately, well, irreconcilable.

Or at least a culture that had long since moved on. But with Eli Wallach, as a blustering near-sighted hitman; Charles Durning, in an angry cop role (originally intended for Ernest Borgnine); and Dana Carvey, a few months from SNL fame; along with Alexis Smith, co-star of Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant in the 40’s and 50’s; and Darlanne Fluegel, fresh off her frequent disrobings in 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A.; Tough Guys in many respects manages to balance its very silly 80’s-ness against its very nostalgic 50’s-ness with a refreshing mix of older and younger performers.

My very 80’s review in three songs might end here with The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ era-omnipresent “Tuff Enuff”, which does in fact play over the closing credits, but I would hate to give short shrift to Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, and even Kenny Rogers. Crooning a wistful Burt Bacharach tune over the opening credits, legitimately “classy” images from “the boys”’ shared past – polished dress shoes, monogrammed money clips, cellophane-wrapped stogies – are lovingly lingered over in a sustained, equally nostalgic tracking shot.

Still, those yearning for very silly 80’s-ness certainly won’t be disappointed. Watching two titans of the industry subjected to the indignities of high concept plotting might prove uncomfortable if the two titans in question didn’t appear effervescently game for the aforementioned crotch-kicks, middle finger-extending, and – in possibly one of its most costly iterations in a formulaic comedy – a helicopter-shot, over a moving train, capturing the defiant unveiling of a 70-year-old posterior. (Yes, Kirk Douglas used his considerable clout to include a “mooning”.)

Inspired by Douglas and Lancaster’s appearance as co-presenters during a segment of the 1984 Academy Awards, the broad notions of screenwriters James Orr and Jim Cruickshank, where the title tough guys encounter talking cars, closed-circuit TV, light beer, frozen yogurt, and the since-changed meaning of the word “gay”, nonetheless gets most of its comic mileage from the still-potent chemistry of two acting greats. No indignity of which, again, diminishes Lancaster’s gravitas or Douglas’ sangfroid, the still-virile pair of 50’s-era studs are never less than a delight to watch through even the most groan-inducing moments of 80’s-era excess. (The blazing-red, baggy-clown-like “designer” outfit Douglas is forced to wear through the middle section of the movie being Exhibit A.)

Featuring a Kino Lorber-moderated commentary with director Jeff Kanew, best known for 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds and 1991’s V.I. Warshowski, the backstory of working with a pair of Hollywood He-Men proves just as interesting (especially the affectionate competitiveness that existed between the two performers) as the on-screen goings-on. Surprising to my own 30 years later viewing of this now vintage movie was the stylistic decision to shoot Tough Guys in anamorphic widescreen (one of the moderators even recalls seeing the film in 70mm!), and the “bigness” of the image actually allows the first time in any of the actors’ previous movies where their extra-broad shoulders could realistically fit in the same shot.

In a way, Tough Guys can be viewed as a throwback to the very first movie the pair appeared in together, the highly-regarded 1947 film noir I Walk Alone. In that stark drama of title-appropriate alienation, Lancaster’s character is released from prison only to discover how the postwar world has tragically passed him by. Tough Guys’ comic, and actually quite touching inversion of the earlier film’s basic premise shows the great acting team this time facing that great unknown together… even if they have to rather improbably crash a hijacked vintage train through the Mexican border with 80’s-specific big explosions and such in order to do it.

The images in this review are used only as a reference to the film and are not meant to reflect the actual picture quality of the Blu-ray.