Court Reporter Terry Coli reviews his first film for the Verdict, a sprightly romp from the Bad Spelling Decade.
Where enemies are made, reputations are earned and love is the most risky affair of all.
I have a theory that the story for Tuff Turf was conceived while two guys were up too late one night drinking, flipping through cable channels, and arguing over whether to watch Rebel Without A Cause or Grease 2. Rather than pick one or the other, these guys decided to write a new movie, merging both films. The result? Tuff Turf, a forgotten gem from 1985 making its DVD debut thanks to Anchor Bay.
Facts of the Case
Morgan Hiller is the new kid in town. His parents have relocated to Los Angeles from back east, where Morgan got into some kind of trouble at his prestigious prep school. They hope that the trouble won't follow him to his next school, Larson High in the San Fernando Valley. But Morgan makes enemies right away when he foils a mugging by a gang of local ruffians. Nick, the leader, exacts revenge on Morgan by smashing his bicycle in front of the entire school. In the face of this persecution, Morgan takes an interest in Nick's girlfriend Frankie. At first Frankie can't stand Morgan, but after some serious wooing, she decides he is the answer to her teen angst. She drops her mid-'80s Madonnaesque attire for a more conservative country-club look. When Nick finds out that his girl is shacking with Morgan, he flips out and kidnaps her, forcing Morgan into a showdown at the local warehouse. Morgan takes care of business, dart-gun style. Top all of this off with Robert Downey Jr. as a wacky sidekick and you've got yourself a great movie, right?
Well…sort of, but like all pure cheese, its greatness is unintentional. Tuff Turf is absolutely hysterical, mainly because it takes itself so seriously. It's the kind of movie where the dancing in a rock club is choreographed. Where people can say things like "meet me at the warehouse" and everyone understands exactly where that is. Where a guy can sit at a piano and sing his girl a completely extemporaneous love song (James Dean never did that). Where Robert Downey Jr. can save the day by showing up with two previously unseen Dobermans, who somehow know the bad guys from the good and chew accordingly.
Tuff Turf is full of illogic and plot holes, but that's forgivable because of some terrific performances. James Spader is absolutely perfect as Morgan Hiller—a rebel, yes, but one who knows how to man a yacht. Usually cast in smarmy rich kid roles (Pretty In Pink), Spader is truly believable as the son of formerly wealthy socialites. At one point in the film he takes his friends from the Valley to a Beverly Hills country club and masterfully bluffs their way into the buffet line. Robert Downey Jr. also displays signs of future greatness as Jimmy Parker, the smartass who gets lucky in the back of a Camaro. Also a drummer in a rock band, he performs wearing no shirt and parachute pants. Somewhat less impressive is the performance of Kim Richards (Escape From Witch Mountain and other Disney fare) as Frankie. Her range is limited, and she is a little too inherently innocent for the role. She is quite cute, however.
Tuff Turf is a product of the '80s and certainly shows its age more than other films of that period. The clothing style, lingo and music alone make Tuff Turf important as a historical document. And the music is actually pretty good, with performances by Southside Johnny, Jack Mack & The Heart Attack and the Jim Carroll Band. Even Spader's crooning on "We Walk the Night" isn't too bad (though it may actually be dubbed, not too sure).
Anchor Bay has released Tuff Turf in a bare bones disc. This was probably inevitable, as the cast and crew probably don't consider this film the highlight of their careers. Still, it might have been fun to hear Spader and Downey wax philosophic about the turns their careers have taken since Tuff Turf. As is, the disc contains simply the film and a trailer. Thankfully, Anchor Bay has given the film an anamorphic widescreen transfer, in its original 1.85:1 scope. It looks really good. For a film that is fifteen years old, I was really impressed with the lack of dirt or blemishes.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is less impressive. It is Dolby Digital mono, and simply adequate.
The trailer is widescreen and is also in pretty good shape.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It should be ashamed of itself for its blatant plot stealing. Like James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, Morgan moves into town after getting into trouble at his old school. Also like Dean, Morgan cannot relate to his ineffectual parents. He quickly befriends a goofy sidekick (okay, Robert Downey Jr. is way cooler Sal Mineo). Like Natalie Wood, Frankie is the gang leader's girlfriend who acquires a taste for new meat. The comparisons go on and on.
Also, keep in mind, this film is good for all the wrong reasons. You're really gonna have to have a jones for cheese to make it through Tuff Turf. And if you don't actually remember the '80s, this'll play like a bad "Welcome Back, Kotter" rerun does to those of us who cannot remember the '70s.
But if you love the '80s, you'll love Tuff Turf. Kudos to Anchor Bay for giving this film new life! Warm up your hair crimper, put on a headband and give it a spin!
Guilty of plot stealing, but at least it's ripping off the best. Because it was so much fun, I'll give it a light sentence. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Theatrical Trailer
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