' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Tuff Turf (1985)

Friday, August 01, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Tuff Turf (1985)

There are films undone by tonal inconsistency and then there is “Tuff Turf” (1985) which is something akin to a Tonal Nuclear Reactor Meltdown. It opens in the vein of “The Karate Kid”, if Cobra Kai were re-imagined as the Bad Guys from the “Beat It” video, until it morphs into a high school-set Elvis Movie, complete with musical numbers and table-top dancing, which is when it’s best, at which point it gives way to an afterschool special in some unnamed John Hughes High before dousing itself in narrative gasoline in the third act and lighting itself on fire. Why it even unbelievably presages both Ferris, Sloane and Cameron’s assault on Chez Luis and Lloyd Dobler’s boom box hoist. So while perhaps in terms of cohesiveness and all-around sense, the film is a wee bit unsuccessful, it would still be wrong to call it a calamity. Through the wreckage crawls, bloodied and bruised, something so wonkily campy it’s difficult to determine whether or not it was on purpose. I don’t think it was. It hardly matters.


Like Brando in “The Wild One”, Morgan (James Spader) rides into California – though aboard a ten speed bike rather than a motorcycle, but nevertheless – and immediately causes trouble. He’s a brooding rich kid from Connecticut whose dad’s lost his job and, in turn, all the family’s moolah and, thus, seeks a new start. Spader’s Morgan is looking for anything other than what’s in front of him. He’s your prototypical too smart for his own good iconoclast (he reads Shakespeare!) and when he runs afoul of a gang in jean jackets, whose leader of the pack is Nick (Paul Mones), he finds himself in a high school high gangland war. Even more importantly, he finds himself in love with Nick’s girl, Frankie (Kim Richards).

Costuming is half the battle in “Tuff Turf.” Nick looks like he just walked off the set of “Streets of Fire”, which he did because that was literally Mones’ previous credit. In addition to the sunglasses-in-the-sunlight look, Morgan matches his behavior, ex-WASP or literate rogue, to his clothing, cashmere sweater to leather jacket with Union Jack. Frankie, though, most of all is summarized by what she wears. Initially she’s like Janet Gardner in Vixen, sporting a bandana with braids and fishnets, a glam rocker without a guitar. Upon meeting Morgan, however, she begins re-examining her wardrobe, and for a dinner with her potential new beau’s parents, she dresses up like the quintessential Girl Next Door. It would almost be a “Leave It To Beaver” variation of “Pygmalion”, suggesting that being a square is preferable to being a suburban fallen angel, except that much like “Tuff Turf” itself, I think the real issue is her identity crisis. Is she a rebel, a punk or a Glinda, or none of the above?

Seeing this film for the first time nearly thirty years after its release allows for a retroactive reading that would not have been applicable to at-the-time critics who helped bring about its fairly rough 20% score at ol’ Rotten Tomatoes. The late great Roger Ebert, for example, was pointedly not a fan, granting it one-and-a-half stars and writing “it’s hard to tell if it this is a gang picture, a musical, a beach party film, or what.” And I don’t disagree with this sentiment. It is hard to tell exactly what “Tuff Turf” wants to be because one minute it’s an avant-garde head trip and the next it’s acting sincere. But then, what is high school but a four year bout of avant-garde head trips and sincerity combining into an experience? A well-placed banner above a billboard wonders “What is your future?”, and neither Frankie nor Morgan really know. They’re just trying to get through now. Heck, director Fritz Kiersch doesn’t seem to know what his own movie’s future is minute to minute.


Mr. Kiersch’s only prior credit to “Tuff Turf” was “Children of the Corn” and he would go on to direct “Into the Sun”, or: “Top Gun” With Anthony Michael Hall. I don’t know that he overly concerned himself with The Auteur Theory. He just wanted music and switchblades and guns and nudity and a dead-of-the-night third-act showdown in a warehouse that resembles a Schwarzenegger movie more than “West Side Story.” It’s so violent and ill-chosen that when the film makes – and this is really saying something – its most outrageous tonal shift, from its blood-splattered conclusion to an end-of-the-credits smiley-face sing-along apparently pretending what literally just happened must have been in some alternate universe, it’s actually a seamless fit.

Once you survive high school, you realize how little of it had to do with anything and you quickly forget it and move on. Why you might just grow up to be your profession’s most notorious eccentric, or a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills.

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