When I was young (yes, it’s going to be one of those introductions), one of the first (maybe even the first) “big boy” bicycles that I had was a Schwinn Stingray. It had the banana seat, those sweetly smooth curves, and it was piss yellow (I can only imagine the good folks at Schwinn calling it “canary yellow” in their corporate poltroonery, but I knew better). It was bought used, and I honestly couldn’t even say where it came from; a yard sale, a friend of the family, wherever. I used to ride it on my newspaper route (remember when kids had those?), and it could be as cumbersome as it was helpful depending on the bulk of the papers on a given day. But usually more helpful. One time, I skidded and slid out right up to the tires of an oncoming car (no damage to me from the car nor to the car from me, but the backs of my thighs had road rash that was legendary for some time [and you haven’t lived until you’ve tried to peel shorts from the large scabs to which they have fused]).
Well, one bright, sunshine day, I went out to mount my wicked steed only to discover it was gone; vanished, as if it had never been there. While nothing could be proven, I always suspected that the culprit was a neighborhood malcontent named Hubble (I don’t remember his first name, nor do I care to), whom we had nicknamed Hubble Bubble (after Hubba Bubba bubblegum; get it?). Shortly after my Stingray went missing, Hubble was seen riding around on a black (spray painted?) bike which closely resembled the shape of mine. Upon confronting him about this, he denied everything and fled, and I don’t remember seeing him around much after that. But I eventually got another bicycle, and life moved on, as it does. So I totally get where Morgan Hiller (James Spader) is coming from when Nick (Paul Mones) and his dickhead cronies mess with his ten-speed in Fritz Kiersch’s Tuff Turf. Fuck you, Hubble. Wherever you are.
Morgan is the new kid in town, and he quickly runs afoul of Nick, his girl Frankie (Kim Richards), and his lackeys while thwarting their attempted armed robbery of some drunken businessman. Wonder of wonders, it’s soon discovered that they all attend the same high school, and even though Morgan makes fast friends with the clearly off-kilter Jimmy (Robert Downey, Jr.), he has an itch that only Frankie may be able to scratch. There may be trouble ahead.
Before we get into anything else, let’s go over what in this film didn’t work for me. To say that a film could use a trim is simple when you don’t have to do the trimming, and I accept that it can be easier said than done. But this one could easily lose a good twenty to thirty minutes and still be a solid film. By that same token, much of what would likely be cut is actually part of what I enjoyed about this one (which I will get to shortly). The film also sets up much more than it actually pays off, and I think that screenwriter Jette Rinck thought that she was being clever and mysterious with some of these elements (just what exactly did Morgan get up to at his last school? Why are he and brother Brian [Bill Beyers] so at odds?), though they’re little more than throwaways from a possible set of notes we’re never allowed to glimpse. The movie’s climax, though it does satisfy, is finifugal and wears out its welcome by the time it finishes. Plus, there is a deus ex machina which is completely unheralded and is rendered by a character I had all but forgotten was even in the film. While these flaws do make the going a little sluggish, they are not enough (at least for me) to condemn the work on the whole.
This brings me to one of the more interesting aspects of the film. At its heart, Tuff Turf is a combination of 1950s and 1980s Juvenile Delinquent films with quasi-Musical components thrown in for good measure. These JD-by-era aspects are clearly delineated in the characters and how they behave. The world that Morgan inhabits is reflective of the pop culture of the Fifties. The very first words out of Morgan’s mouth are the words to the Gene Vincent hit Be Bop A Lula as he rides through Nick’s gang like a knight errant. Morgan’s style of dancing is straight out of a sock hop. He fits the James Dean mold almost perfectly (a mostly polite boy on the surface with boiling storm of emotion and indecision roiling underneath this veneer). By contrast, Nick’s gang is of the Class of 1984 variety. They dress like Eighties punks of the Hollywood persuasion. More importantly, they are not merely menacing like teenagers testing boundaries or doing a little criminal mischief. They stuff a dead rat in Morgan’s locker. They throw him a pretty harsh towel party in the gym locker room. These are criminals-in-training, and it only takes the right confluence of events for this end stage to totally and violently emerge. The musical sequences, then, are very choreographed (though they would more accurately be described as dance numbers, since the characters don’t feel the need to convey their emotional states in rapturous song while they strut their stuff), and these are what truly make the film a standout for me (it’s no Footloose, but what can you do?). They are so unexpected, so different from what I anticipated, I found them instantly charming. Do they fit tonally with the rest of the film? No, but all of its disparities together are what sets this movie apart from the crowd.
Although they are only a few in number, these musical scenes also help to illustrate the major theme of the film, and it is one of choice (because how the characters engage with these scenes helps describe them). However, even though Morgan is clearly of the upper crust and he is our protagonist, it is Frankie upon whom the major decision of the film rests. She comes from a lower/working class background, and she feels that this is all she deserves. When Morgan shows her his world, she becomes more attracted to it and to him. Morgan mocks those he used to rub elbows with, and this is both his giving Frankie, Jimmy, and Ronnie (Olivia Barash) entrée into his world and his distancing of himself from it. When Frankie sees how the other half live, she changes her appearance to fit in better, and this is specifically emphasized in two shots. Early on in the film, while still in league with Nick, there is a closeup of Frankie applying cherry red lipstick. She is trying to stand out, to be recognized. Later, before going to dinner at Morgan’s and meeting his parents, we get another closeup of her applying lipstick, but this time it’s a more natural shade. This is her desire to assimilate, to fit in (and I suppose on some level this could be considered sad or undesirable, though clearly that’s a matter of perspective on the part of the viewer). It is the series of choices that Frankie makes in what she will allow and not allow in her life which will ultimately define her (as we see in her physical/emotional relationships with Nick and Morgan). And while Spader is the headliner and physical hero of Tuff Turf, it is Richards who embodies the internal conflicts and gives the film what emotional impact it has.
MVT: Spader or Richards? Richards or Spader? I’m tempted to give it to both, since I am a huge fan of Spader, but I think I have to go with Richards on this one. She does a hell of a lot with a part which could easily have been a passive damsel in distress role. She truly goes a long way in elevating this material. And she can dance.
Make Or Break: The first dance scene Makes the film, and it sneaks up on the viewer in its unfolding. You’re uncertain of what you’re seeing until you’re convinced it cannot be anything else. And that the filmmakers had the stones to do this, and then continue doing it later, helps the film distinguish itself.