Tuff Turf

Forcible wall of dance
★★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1985
Director: 
Fritz Kiersch
Starring: 
James Spader, Kim Richards, Paul Mones, Robert Downey, Jr.
The Setup: 
Troubled teen runs into more trouble in his new school.
Discussion: 

One of the problems with watching a bunch of movies, especially a bunch of bad movies, is that after a while you just become somewhat immune, and the craziest, most ludicous elements, that once might have been jaw-droppers, now are lucky to generate a yawn. This makes me feel somewhat unqualified as an amateur critic of the underseen, as I've lost touch with what it would be like to see an outrageously bizarre movie if you only watched one once in a while. As far as Tuff Turf, please try to look beyond my somewhat blase attitude and realize that, if you aren't watching this kind of stuff all the time, you will probably find this a totally amusing and out-there piece of, well, garbage. But totally misguided garbage with a lot of attitude and style, which is even better.

Okay so we open with this awesome 80s music [this is from '85] and see a mysterious figure riding a bike by night. You're listening and thinking "Is that Marianne Faithfull?" as you hear this voice croaking "Love-love TAKES! Love-love BREAKS!" It is indeed Marianne Failthfull. This movie tries rather desperately to have an ultra-hip soundtrack and loudly trumpets the inclusion of once-hot L.A. bands such as Jack Mack and the Heart Attack and Jim Carroll. Our scene settles on an lonely newsstand where a respectable businessman buys a paper and waits for a bus. Suddenly appears KIM RICHARDS as a STREETWALKER! Kim Richards, as surely you realize, will forever be known as Tia from the Witch Mountain movies [and also appeared in Devil Dog and The Car] and is apparently trying to transition into sexy young adult roles here. Anyway, Kim uses her wiles to divert the businessman so that her posse of no-good teen thugs can grab and try to mug him--these are some mean-ass streets--but suddenly, like an avenger in the night, bicycle dude swings through, rescues the guy through the strategic deployment of a can of soda, then rides off into the night, leaving Kim gasping with enflamed lust. Who was that bicycled avenger?

It was James Spader at Morgan, who was a misunderstood delinquent at his former school in Connecticut, to the point where his entire family had to relocate to the other side of the country in order for him to have another chance. Please take time to absorb that the family relocated from CONNECTICUT to L.A. in order to get Morgan AWAY from gang activity. We know that Morgan is a misunderstood genius because he has an Einstein poster on his wall, and we know that these are the gritty, gritty streets because there is a roach crawling on said poster. Never mind that this roach would be gargantuan in SOUTH AMERICA and alone would constitute serious cause for Morgan's family to sue their landlord. The next day Morgan is riding his bike in his Ray-Bans and blond blow-wave--holy shit, it just NOW occurred to me that this movie is trying to ride the coattails of Risky Business--to his new high school, where he runs afoul of the security force who does not allow bikes on campus. REBEL! I think it's obvious to see that Morgan and the forces of oppression have a date with conflict. The gang of no-goodnik thugs, led by Nick, with Frankie [that's Kim] as his moll, see Morgan and recognize him as the bicycling avenger from the night before.

At school he meets Robert Downey, Jr., cute as a little button in his young incarnation and emo-kid black eyeliner, who becomes his insta-buddy in the way that only happens in high school movies. I don’t think I ever had any insta-buddies in high school. They see a movie in history class that is about criminals of the old West, like Jesse James, positioning them as “heroes” who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Between this and Morgan’s Cycling Avenger activities of the night before, I thought the movie was going to position him as this kind of secret crusader for teen justice, who strikes by night, skulks in the shadows, etc., and it goes on like that for a while, but ultimately doesn’t really pan out that way.

So when Morgan gets out of school he finds that Nick and company have commandeered his bike, and are riding around on it. Frankie is riding around on the bike and taunting him, to the point where she steps a tiny bit past redemption for me, but the balance could probably be tipped by, you know, liking girls. Anyway, Morgan gets sprayed in the face, then gets his bike back, then one of the thugs drives by and smashes the bike as Morgan stands by, matador-style. This is what also made me think Morgan was being positioned as some kind of high school samurai, because he just stands there calmly as they repeatedly beat him, goes right into fights he knows he will lose, and doesn’t try to pull his bike out of the way when it’s obvious it’ll be destroyed. So he’s like this existentialist Zen warrior, is that it? Or he’s mentally ill? We’ll have cause to wonder for a while, as his actions do seem to make very little sense… but eventually the movie just drops all this.

LATE BREAKING NEWS: Today, as I am writing this, Kim Richards is part of the cast of new Bravo reality show The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I am going to leave you to form your own judgement about that. As for me, well, my childhood is dead now, so I may as well just move on.

So ultra-zen Morgan walks his wrecked bike home and fixes it, without letting on to his parents that he's in trouble again. That night the thugs are after him again, so Morgan implies that a Porsche convertable sitting there with the keys inside is his, and the thugs steal it, then getting arrested for car theft. Okay let's stop: I am supposed to believe that this town is some pretty TUFF TURF, and yet people feel comfortable leaving the keys right in their Porsche convertible? Is that right?

So Morgan goes into this rock club where--is that Jim Carroll? Why yes it is, and we're supposed to believe that Jimmy [that's Robert Downey, Jr.] is their drummer. And now follows what is pretty much the highlight of this film, and something that may leave you deeply confused and troubled for weeks afterward. Around 27 minutes in, Morgan decides that he is going to dance with Frankie, whether she likes it or not [she does not] and he grabs her and essentially forces her to dance with him. Which would be one thing if he were just holding her close, but no, they're executing all these dips and whirls and turns, which we are supposed to accept that he is FORCING her to do--for minutes at a time. Your jaw will then drop and you will be forced to reaffirm that you are, in fact, still conscious as you see Frankie attempt to flee, but the surrounding crowd SUDDENLY form into an organized ensemble and execute a dance move that serves to keep Frankie prisoner to Morgan's dance assault. The true tenor of this moment is impossible to express in words, but trust me whan I tell you that this group of apparently independent people suddenly group to form a forcible wall of dance, then as abruptly scatter again. It breaks the narrative style of the entire film, and really causes you to go back and question everything that is happening here. It's most akin to that indelible moment in Pat Benatar's Love Is a Battlefield video when it's been all gritty drama, until suddenly the background plays form a wall and start shimmying in time. And it goes on THROUGH AN ENTIRE SONG. You may need to turn off the movie and go sit in a quiet, dark room with your head between your knees.

Once you have recovered, should you choose to continue, you will see that Morgan receives a bloody dead rat in his locker for having Nick thrown in jail for auto theft [which he is sprung from immediately and faces no further punative action]. Look baby--this turf is TUFF. Then SUDDENLY formerly leather jacket-only Morgan appears in a spotlessly white preppy sweater, and his older brother comes over. We can see that Morgan's Mom loves the older brother more than she loves Morgan, which is the majority of explanation we get about why Morgan is as troubled as he is. It's so unfair! Never mind that the older brother is well-dressed, successful, respectful to his mother and generally NOT a worthless, snide layabout like Morgan. Anyway, Morgan steals Nick's car and essentially kidnaps Frankie, driving at high speed to prevent her from escape. Ah, love amongst the sociopaths. Jimmy is also on hand and is inadvertently paired with Frankie's co-gang member, who is a Madonna wannabe. They decide to go to a rich country club, and then we have a run-through of the familiar sequence in which the spunky kids from the wrong side of the tracks come in and show these snooty bluebloods a thing or two.

Our heroes charm and perplex the rich bluebloods, as the working class are wont to do in movies. There is also a band playing, and it’s a measure of how quickly American culture has focused exclusively on the young that I was a bit shocked to see this guy, who MIGHT be as ancient as 38, playing at this party. Then Morgan gets up and sings a tender ballad to Frankie, accompanied by music that consists of one, maybe two notes at most, the whole experience summed up in my notes as “painful.” It actually took me several installments to make it all the way through this movie, and I am happy to say that I have actually mostly forgotten this musical number, a fact I am rather pleased about. I think that’s what’s allowing me to function normally and attend work today, whereas I’m quite sure that if I did remember it, I would be at home, paralyzed by hopelessness and despair for myself, and mankind. Of course, then I might get disability.

So the they repair back to the club thing they normally go to, where we have the second of our jaw-dropping sequences as Kim Richards has what was surely her most mortifying nadir of integrity [until Real Housewives, that is] as Frankie does this insane dance, which includes much tossing of her long-crimped hair [she looks like a member of Stevie Nicks’ bloodline] and numerous gymnastic moves [such as CARTWHEELS] all around the entire bar. But this doesn’t come without cost for Morgan, who gets assaulted by Nick’s cronies once again [this is starting to get repetitive], this time with padlocks inside gym towels. Hmm, I’ll have to try that sometime.

So Morgan goes home with a photogenic scar on his cheek, which he invents an excuse about to his dad [I have an abusive S&M leather daddy boyfriend, dad!] rather than tell him the truth, that he is once again in trouble at school. We think dad is about to blow his stack when—he suddenly turns sensitive and understanding! You see, parents are people, too! The generation gap CAN be bridged! Dad tells Morgan that he has to do what he believes in! And be himself! Which is all awesome, except… somehow I doubt that we would have gotten to this place and had Morgan already involved in serious delinquency had Dad been this cool all along, you know? Clearly Dad was abducted by aliens and replaced with a cyborg, which Morgan, wisely, isn’t asking any questions about.

Well, maybe Kim felt she hadn’t done enough damage to her already-sputtering career, so we now have a horrifying, wayyy-too-long sequence of her getting ready for a date with Morgan in her room, trying on this outfit and that, different hairstyles, dancing around, and giving imaginary interviews to the press. It is one of those things that will have you gaping at your screen in abject horror. You know, one of THOSE things. Then she thinks Morgan is by to pick her up—but it’s NICK! And he makes clear that he is not at all happy with the emotional distance that has sprung up in their relationship, though truth be told, he doesn’t express it with quite that level of sensitivity. And I believe this is the scene in which my friend, who recommended the movie, was taken aback by the implication that Nick performs cunnilingus on Frankie. And—remember how I was talking about Bad Movie Fatigue? How shocking, appalling things are just so par for the course that I don’t even lift an eyebrow about them? The truth is, I saw it—and just didn’t think anything out of the ordinary about it.

SPOILERS > BUT COME ON, REALLY > > > So Morgan comes in through her window while she's expecting Nick, they share some romantic moments and he gets a promise from her to come to dinner with his parents, before he sneaks out again and Nick comes in. By the way, you might have cause to notice that Frankie has about as much backbone as a wet blob of 1-ply paper towel, and constantly kowtows to Nick's wishes, despite how much we know she's against them. Maybe we are supposed to understand that she's completely overwhelmed by him, but the movie sets him up as enough of a buffoon that it's not very convincing, and after a while it just seemed like Frankie has no substance whatsoever--to the point where it's difficult to understand what Morgan sees in her. Ah! For example! When the next moment, Nick brings her dad into her room and tells her that the two of them have agreed that she will marry Nick, without anyone so much as asking her. And. She. Just. Goes. Along. Show some spine, jellyfish! How are we supposed to respect you?

So despite her impending force-nuptuals, she shows up to dinner at Morgan's house anyway. This is treated as though it shows what a spunky rebel she is. You will notice that this movie follows established movie shorthand that expresses character's complex emotional states through hair design, as, now that Frankie has shed her defensive attitude, she also eschews hair product, and shows up at Morgan's house with a free-flowing, natural look. She supposedly feels out of place because she's supposedly a skank girl from the wrong side of the tracks, although you'll just have to take the movie's word for it. Morgan's mom just turns into a chatty cathy, inviting Frankie to this and that and virtually marrying the girl into the family, or at least planning her social calendar for the next several months. But she makes the mistake of inviting Frankie's mother along to some ghastly-sounding social event, and Frankie, rather than calmly responding "Actually, my mother passed away," as any nine-year-old would have learned to do by now, throws a huff fit and runs sobbing to the kitchen, supposedly acutely aware that a musky-stankin' child of the ghetto such as herself could never really exist in such high-toned upper middle-class environments--that have giant cockroaches climbing on the walls, if I remember correctly. Right?

So Frankie has gone back to Nick--and her former crimped hairstyle, which has now become an all-too-potent symbol of her psychological captivity. Nick takes her and is going to break her of this whole Morgan thing by forcing her to go ask Morgan's cab-driver dad and ask him for change. Okay wait--we just had some drama about how ghetto child Frankie is uncomfortable in Morgan's upper-class home--on dad's salary as a CAB DRIVER?!??!!??! You see why I just needed to mentally shut down and get some distance on this. Christ, it could give you an aneyurism.

Regardless, Frankie, who cannot stand up to Nick at all, goes and distracts Morgan's dad while the gang fans out and eventually starts beating ol' dad. But this cab-drivin' blueblood has some spunk in him and beats the piss out of Nick and buddies! That was a surprise. Except, oh dear, Nick has a gun and shoots Morgan's dad. Doesn't kill him though, which I thought would have been extra tragic. Oh well.

Frankie has once more brought her hair into a natural state to visit Morgan at the hospital. Seriously, her hair has more emotional acumen than she does. Anyway, they repair back to his room, where they make sweet hot sensuous love, punctuated by bursts of what appear to be sunlight, surely representing the searing white-hot blasts of pleasure rocking her clit.
Okay now we’re coming to the climax and thank God because I cannot believe I’m still babbling on about this movie. So Frankie is just trying to visit her local convenience store in peace when who should show up but Nick and posse. Nick tells her to call Morgan and tell him to meet her at some warehouse or something—let me ask you, how many times has your girl or boyfriend asked you to meet them in some abandoned warehouse? Ever? And WOULD you, if they did? Oh God, it’s hurting me. He goes, they have the expected brawl and—I’m trying to remember if there was ANYTHING special about it. Except that it’s fairly extreme—there are guns and axes and such. And Jimmy gets shot in the leg. And Frankie STILL has trouble making up her mind between these two BFs. And I must say, by now the movie has built up enough tension and annoyance that the first does have a good, visceral tension. Did you catch that? I said something positive about this movie. Well, semi-positive.
< < < SPOILERS END

Okay, if you like bad movies, like teen delinquents [and who doesn’t?], like 80s movies and like Kim Richards or James Spader, you should get a bunch of friends and a bunch of booze together and watch the shit out of this, making fun the whole way. I suppose you could watch it without booze, if you’re a Christian Promise-Keeper or something, but it’s NOT recommended. It’s not quite as good by yourself, but if you’re into the horrid movies you could make it work for you. I suppose. Me, I’m just a little too burned out and fucked over by bad movies to really even notice much anymore.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it really is unbelievably off-the-chart cheese, with lots of 80s charm... but don't go it alone.