“Tough Guys” (citywide Friday) practically dares you not to like it. It’s so firmly pegged to the personalities of its stars--Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas--that rejecting it might feel like rejecting them, like being the grouch at a career tribute.

They play a couple of aging but hardly decrepit bank robbers, Harry Doyle and Archie Long, released into a modern world that bewilders and then enrages them. Trying to adjust after years in the slammer, Harry and Archie find their dignity under constant assault: by street-corner hoods, insatiable aerobics experts, callous bosses and bureaucrats, sadistic yogurt shop customers and even Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Finally--after a series of maddening confrontations, they decide to revolt, hijacking the Gold Coast Flyer, the train they robbed with less-than-successful results--and were imprisoned for--three decades ago.

It’s a typical tacked-on climax, swooping down from Movie Marketing Land. The only really plausible motive for anyone to heist this train is to give “Tough Guys” a bang-up ending. But the stars carry it off with aplomb: They’ve done it before--Lancaster in “The Train” and Douglas (sort of) in “Last Train From Gun Hill”--and they can send up their old heroics with a wink.


To the writers and the director, Jeff Kanew of “Revenge of the Nerds,” it’s clear that Lancaster and Douglas represent the bygone glories of Hollywood. They’re men with a code from a vanished era; they’re sentimentalized in much the same way John Wayne was in most of his last decade’s films. The duo carry automatic glamour and nobility and the movie is an elaborate star turn, a chance to see them strutting their stuff one more time.

On that level, it’s a success: a rousing tribute and, hopefully, a not-quite-last hurrah. (It’s even likely to be a surprise hit.) But that’s all it is. This movie needs Lancaster and Douglas. It’s really nothing much without them, even though some of the supporting actors, like Eli Wallach and Charles Durning as a crazed assassin and a vengeful cop, respectively, are excellent as well.

On its own merits, “Tough Guys” is formula-bound, shallow and often as starry-eyed as the young probation officer who worships these two old crooks. It also has typical modern-movie logic glitches. At the beginning, a newspaper headline informs us that Harry and Archie were sentenced to 30 years for armed robbery; then we learn the two are being paroled together--after 30 years. (What kind of parole is that? Did they get one day off for good behavior?)

Lancaster and Douglas can triumph over their own canonization for a lot of reasons: They’re superb movie actors; they have eerie on-screen chemistry, and they’re two of the movies’ great grinners. In their youth, they were tireless extroverts--both had the wide, chomping smiles of charismatic sharks. Sometimes, when they co-starred in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” or soft-shoed through their self-kidding “It’s Great Not to Be Nominated” Oscar show routines, they seemed less like buddies than friendly antagonists: each ready to devour the other at a false step.

That’s the basis of their chemistry. They seem to share a general outlook and energy level, but their differences keep the air crackling. Lancaster, even more as he’s grown older, projects serene, leonine gravity, a force-field of confidence and equipoise. Douglas is best at playing the nervy, flawed guy who has to prove himself--who keeps making waves. That’s their relationship here. Harry is older, more stable; Archie is the instant rebel, raising Cain by reflex.

The movie is good at portraying friendship, even in these exaggerated terms. But it falls short on its other half-serious level: exposing the mistreatment of the elderly. You get the idea that the writers, as in “Cocoon,” want to run against Hollywood’s youth fetish, turn the spotlight on the old. But once they’ve switched on the beam, they can’t figure out anything for the old to do , except act like the movie young--bash people’s heads, rob trains, have wild sex and hang out at hard-core clubs listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Since you can’t really take any of “Tough Guys” very seriously, this isn’t necessarily offensive, but it lends an added mournfulness to Harry’s line: “Is it a crime to be old?”


On some unconscious level, here it is a crime. Harry-Burt and Archie-Kirk are exonerated because they’re forever young. They may tire in the bedroom, but on a train or on the street, they’re tough as they ever were.

And, luckily for the film makers, Lancaster and Douglas are as good as they ever were. Without them, “Tough Guys” (PG) would be a pretty thin ride.