James Spader, Robert Downey, Jr. and Cheese. Glorious Cheese.
A few weeks ago, a kid over on the movie website Film School Rejects suggested (for a different publication, as I recall) that Ghostbusters was the only good movie to come out of the entire 1980s decade. As moronic generalizations go, it was one of the more boneheaded suggestions ever made by legitimate movie reviewer not named Alex Billington, but if you came of age in the 90s, and only had a limited exposure to the movies of the 1980s, I could probably understand the initial, knee-jerk reaction. By and large, for movie fans more accustomed to the pace and gloss of the 90s and beyond, the generic 80’s movie aesthetic could be a little jarring. It’s not really an acquired taste, either. You either grew up on it, or it doesn’t feel right. Watching an 80’s film for the first time is not that far removed from the experience of watching a black and white film. To appreciate a lot of those 80s films, you have to look beneath the feathered hair; get over the cable-access level of editing; and ignore the synthesized scores. It’s a testament, really, to John Hughes that most of his 80’s teen comedies don’t look and feel nearly as dated as most of the movies of that decade. One need look no further than, say, Beverly Hills Cop, to come to that conclusion. I mean: Come on. Don Johnson was cool in the 1980s. It wasn’t a particularly good decade for popular culture.
1985’s Tuff Turf represents everything that was awful about 80’s movies. It is the heinous, bloody half-remains of an aborted John Hughes’ fetus. It is ungodly terrible. And yet, transfixing all the same. It’s such a perfect distillation of bad 80’s action dramas. that it’s almost impossible to look away. The head bands. The muscle shirts. The chest hair. The feathered mullets with ribbon bangs. The unnecessary slow motion sequences. The graffiti walls. The poorly timed fight sequences and the obvious pulled punches. The terrible music — bad pop songs reduced to synthesized scores. The blinding white tennis shoes and the hot pink Lycra. My God, the Lycra!
And in the center of it all: James Spader and Robert Downey, Jr.
I don’t really even know why I watched Tuff Turf, and it’s even more difficult to understand why I watched it all the way through A reader suggested it as an underappreciated gem a few months ago (thanks, Meit?), based on the fact that Downey and Spader were in it. I put it in my Netflix queue, and it showed up at my house a few weeks later. I stuck it in the DVD player, and then proceeded to stare at it, agog, mesmerized by the uneven tone, the obvious Rebel Without a Cause plot line, and the idea of James Spader as the 80’s James Dean. But, you can’t properly review a film like this. It has to be experienced. Here’s a 2:34 taste, which I implore you to watch, asking yourself how anyone could consider these people “tough,” much less “tuff.” It’s worth it just to see a young Spader try out bad-ass:
Keep in mind, too, that this was a legitimate film. It wasn’t a straight-to-VHS affair; it made $10 million at the box office (which is more like $20 million, today). Critics had to watch it, and review it seriously. (Roger Ebert hated it, for the record, while The New York Times Janet Maslin found a few redeeming things about it, including Robert Downey, Jr.). It wasn’t a particularly unusual film for the period — a very bad film, perhaps. But not any different from other very bad films of the decade.
How bad is Tuff Turf? Bad enough to kill Kim Richards’ career. Between 1971 and 1985, she had 48 credits on her filmography. After Tuff Turf, she didn’t make another appearance for five years, and then not again until 2006’s Black Snake Moan. Yeah: The girl in the original Escape to Witch Mountain shows one little boob in Tuff Turf and her career is over. That’s 1985, for you.
Tuff Turf is about a white-bread Connecticut bad ass (Spader) who wears sunglasses and gets kicked out of schools, who is forced to relocate to the seedy side of Los Angeles when his father loses his job. Morgan is his name, because of course it is. One night, Morgan breaks up a knife-point robbery conducted by a passel of Vinne Barbarinos by riding his 10-speed through the fracas and spraying the contents of a beer can in their face. That’s the narrative hook.
The next day, his first at the new school, the Barbarinos — led by Nick Hauser (Paul Mones) — take his ten-speed away and run over it with a car. Morgan returns the favor by framing them for a stolen car and while they’e in jail, Morgan makes the moves on Nick’s lady friend, Frankie (Kim Richards). He does so largely by sneaking her into a country club and then serenading her behind a piano, in what has to be one of the most ludicrous musical numbers in all of the 80s. In fact, witness it yourself:
Eventually, Nick and his gang get out of jail. After that, the entire tone of Tuff Turf shifts from a bad high-school drama to a dark, late-night Cinemax flick? Nick shoots Morgan’s Dad, Morgan has sex with Frankie, and it all culminates in a half-hour stand-off in a warehouse and a fight sequence that goes on for an eternity before abruptly ending, along with the movie. It’s very bizarre.
What’s remarkable about Tuff Turf, however, is that as flagrantly abominable as the movie is, James Spader somehow manages to rise above it. It was his first feature movie role (pre-Pretty in Pink) and he’s weirdly watchable. Robert Downey, Jr., who plays his only friend in the high school, is also sharp (this was back before he had the gap in his tooth fixed). Both Spader and Downey demonstrate that, even in the worst movies, you can tell who has it. You want to see them onscreen, and not just because we’re familiar with them in 2009, but because they knew how to act, even then.
Still, as bad as Tuff Turf is, it’s a compelling film to watch, not for the movie itself, but as a historical document. It’s an absolutely ridiculous movie, but if I understand correctly, it’s also been touted as one of the 80s great guilty pleasures.