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Retro Review: TUFF TURF (1985)

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TUFF TURF 
(US - 1985)

Directed by Fritz Kiersch. Written by Jette Rinck. Cast: James Spader, Kim Richards, Paul Mones, Matt Clark, Claudette Nevins, Olivia Barash, Robert Downey Jr., Panchito Gomez, Michael Wyle, Catya Sassoon, Frank McCarthy, Art Evans, Herb Mitchell, Bill Beyers, Lou Fant, Jim Carroll, Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. (R, 112 mins)

For a hot minute from 1986 to 1987 at the tail end of the original Brat Pack era, James Spader established himself as the next William Zabka, whose performances in THE KARATE KID, JUST ONE OF THE GUYS, and BACK TO SCHOOL were instrumental in establishing the template for every smug, bullying '80s teen movie douchebag who came down the pike. Spader's supporting turns in PRETTY IN PINK and LESS THAN ZERO carried on the Zabka tradition but with a more cerebral bent. Where Zabka mastered the portrayal of the asshole jock bully, Spader's prickiness possessed an intelligence and a jaded, erudite malevolence that bordered on sociopathy. Spader ran with that a few years later in Steven Soderbergh's 1989 landmark indie SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE and again in David Cronenberg's controversial 1997 film CRASH. Essentially a career journeyman with an occasional STARGATE blockbuster to his credit, Spader is known more these days for his TV work, which began in 2003 with a stint on THE PRACTICE that was spun off into BOSTON LEGAL, teaming him with William Shatner. Like Shatner, Spader is completely aware of his eccentric "James Spader" persona and is in on the joke, whether it was his brief turn as fill-in Dunder-Mifflin branch manager Robert California on THE OFFICE or in his most steady "James Spader" role yet, the sardonic ex-black ops agent Raymond "Red" Reddington on THE BLACKLIST, soon to be in its seventh season on NBC.






Before making his mark with PRETTY IN PINK, and with a couple of minor supporting roles and some TV credits under his belt, 24-year-old Spader's first starring gig in a feature film came with TUFF TURF. Released in January 1985 and just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), it's ostensibly part of the low-budget high school gang movie craze of the period, like 1982's CLASS OF 1984, 1983's YOUNG WARRIORS, 1984's SAVAGE STREETS, and 1986's 3:15 and DANGEROUSLY CLOSE to name a few. But it quickly stakes its claim as the weirdest of the bunch, with Spader's character introduced shouting "Be Bop a Lula!" as he rides his ten-speed through a mugging, and defuses the situation in an impromptu fashion by shaking a can of soda and spraying it at some punks rolling a guy at a Reseda bus stop. Five minutes into TUFF TURF, and it's already difficult to tell if it's a serious movie and even after watching it, the question remains. Spader is Morgan Hiller, a Connecticut country club preppy who recently relocated to a blue collar area of L.A. after his dad (veteran character actor Matt Clark) lost everything back east when his business collapsed. With his dad driving a cab while studying for the California real estate exam and his mom (Claudette Nevins) riding his ass because he lacks the ambition of his successful toolbag of an older brother Brian (Bill Beyers), the last thing Morgan needs is trouble, but he gets it the next morning on the first day of school, when the punks from the mugging, led by Nick (29-year-old Paul Mones) and his girlfriend Franky (former child actress, '70s Disney star, Paris Hilton aunt, and future REAL HOUSEWIVES OF BEVERLY HILLS reality TV personality Kim Richards), recognize him and see he's the new kid. Morgan keeps tangling with Nick and his goons, who destroy his bike and leave a dead rat in his locker, but he finds a buddy in smartass goofball Jimmy (a pre-fame Robert Downey Jr.) and gradually woos Franky from the vicious clutches of the possessive Nick, which only makes things worse.



It also leads to unexpected comedy, with a seemingly improvised set piece where Morgan and Jimmy take Franky and her friend Ronnie (Olivia Barash) for a joyride in Nick's car and crash a posh Beverly Hills country club. It only gets more strange when Morgan commandeers a piano and sings a maudlin ballad to Franky. There's also a brief appearance by punk icon, poet, and BASKETBALL DIARIES subject Jim Carroll as himself (in the world of TUFF TURF, Downey's Jimmy plays drums in Carroll's band), long scenes of people driving around or one of Franky putting on makeup and trying on outfits for a date with Morgan, and numerous instances of shots where it seems like someone should've said "Cut" before they did. Seriously overlong at 112 minutes, TUFF TURF feels like the cut before the final cut, and likely would've been more consistent and effective at 85 or 90 minutes, without all those static, lingering shots, or the incongruous broad comedy.






The film was directed by Fritz Kiersch, who had a decent-sized hit the previous year with the Stephen King adaptation CHILDREN OF THE CORN. But it's hard telling what to make of the vaguely REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE-inspired script by one Jette Rinck (an obvious pseudonym further signifying the film's serious James Dean worship; "Jett Rink" is the name of Dean's character in GIANT), which seems like it was the result of two writers--one with a violent gang thriller and the other with a goofy teen comedy--clumsily crashing into each other on the studio lot like they're in an old Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial, yelling "Hey, you got your comedy in my thriller!" and "No, you got your thriller in my comedy!" and cobbling the random, scattered pages of the scripts into one. TUFF TURF is a hot mess, the kind of movie where tragedy strikes when an enraged Nick shoots Morgan's dad, sending him into a coma, but it can still end with a fun closing credits sequence where Spader and Downey head to a show and hop onstage to play air sax and mug shamelessly with L.A. regional legends Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. There's also a showdown in an abandoned, ramshackle warehouse and a terrible score by noted record producer Jonathan Elias, who's also credited with "synthesizer realization," arguably the most 1985 movie credit ever. And TUFF TURF's D.P. is renowned Belgian cinematographer Willy Kurant, whose credits include Jean-Luc Godard's MASCULIN FEMININ (1966), Alain Robbe-Grillet's TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS (1966), Orson Welles' THE IMMORTAL STORY (1968) and, uh, Louis C.K.'s POOTIE TANG (2001). See what I mean? Everything about TUFF TURF is just weird.


TUFF TURF opening in Toledo, OH on 3/1/1985

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