Feb 08th: “Tuff Turf” (1985)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
The 80s were filled to the brim with new talent, and new talent dominated the coming of age genre convention. Coming of age had been done many times before. Think Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz or Meet Me in St Louis. She joined forces with Mickey Rooney Andy Hardy series, setting up role models for that all american good natured image. Later, in the 50s, we stirred the pot that had James Dean the few pictures that brought about the angst of becoming an adult. Francois Truffaut chronicled the semi-biographical, growing pains of teen life against the backdrop of Paris in the 50s.The 60s and 70s were mainly about children in the school room and their relating to the adults that either inspired their worlds or otherwise, oppressed their sense of spirit. Films like American Graffiti, Grease and Breezy showcased American teens taking over with a carefree dominance, and then, the 80s came, and we all became introspective, deep and meaningful about milestones. The idea that teenage life is always gritty and tough, and never as well intentioned as the Railway Children, or Anne of Green Gables, nor are they Swiss Family Robinson. Kids seemed to grow up much faster, and with a furious dominance in the 80s than in any other era of cinema. Everybody talks about Ferris Bueller, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club… but who had time for Tuff Turf? Well. I did, and it has a lot to say too.
The title of a movie can make a big difference when it comes to making and breaking on opening weekend. Starting with the mindset of “What exactly does it mean?” can make flash decisions that much harder. But what other title could you give it. It seems to me to be perfectly matched with the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the main character, Morgan, played down brilliantly by James Spader. Here, he plays a student, new to the Los Angeles, having moved to the area after his parents relocate after losing their business.
Already we begin with questionable choices: The reason for relocating seems to have nothing to do with the location, and is much more a logistical matter for the filmmaking itself. But no matter. The father takes up the business of driving cabs at night while the mother continues a life of societal blindness — with a complete lack of responsibility or accountability.
Morgan starts a new school, and immediately fixates on notorious bad girl, Frankie, played by career light, Kim Richards. But Frankie is already taken. She’s the girl of the local gang leader, the antisocial urban predator, Nick, played by Paul Mones. It’s needless to say that Nick doesn’t like Morgan interacting with Frankie and as the movie progresses; the rules of escalation are followed to a bloody finale.
The film itself summons the signatures of many different genres. It’s an urban western. It’s a romantic coming of age film. Morgan’s personality is internal, and his giveaway moments are defined by others around him as well as his environment. He’s a chameleon, blending only in with environments, and mimics characters in order to adapt to his circumstances. We first see Morgan as he comes swooping in to save a man being mugged by Nick and his gang, aided by Frankie as the bait. Morgan is Zorro on a bike. His coat is ripped open on the back, leaving a mark. A scar from which is used to later identify him as the maskless crusader. On his own, he’s the Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. In school then plays the troubled teen. The cool headed victim who acts like he’s in a standoff in a Sergio Leone movie. At every stage, he has his eyes on Frankie.
Morgan makes friends with Jimmy Parker, played by a 19 year old Robert Downey Jr. Let’s not ask about the ages of the other actors playing high school ages. Many movies in the 80s played with the adult playing teenager model. This was nothing new. Downey Jr plays this character like he’s at the edge of the films fourth wall. It’s as if he’s aware that he’s in a movie, and observes it as such, like an audience member. He even brought his own snacks. It was clear that he was having a good time being himself, but his character had a manner of convenience and did not influence Morgan’s character in any way. Morgan even takes Frankie, her generic friend and Jimmy to a Country Club in which they pretend to be members during the clubs brunch club. They take over the place, and act up in a fun sequence of non sequitur that ends with Morgan serenading Frankie at the piano. Another personality shift that is dependant on his surroundings.
The film’s final scenes are right out of a 90s Van Damme movie. Frankie no longer wants Nick, and oh boy, it takes a lot for her to come to that conclusion. What follows is a thrilling fight that you’d expect to find in the third act of a Lethal Weapon. Seeing that this was a 1985 film, it was ahead of its time.
This film deals a lot with identity. Much of the movie’s set pieces involve a musical number where our main characters spend much of the time dancing the running time away.
Now I sound like I’m throwing a lot of negatives into the mix here, but the truth is, at not one moment are we not entertained. The negatives are part and parcel of a very gritted, real and yet unreal portrayal of teenage life in the 80s. Most of it seems to be in the heads of the characters. What we see isn’t necessarily truth.
The film is trapped in a bubble of 1985 identity, but in doing so, explores the multiple personalities of a main character who quite simply doesn’t know who he wants to be from one moment to the next. The confusion is a perfect fit for the characters in this movie. Frankie wants to be more, and she finds that through rebelling. Nick the predator doesn’t give much, and is nothing more than a Terminator, determined to just acquire and take without human thought. Downey Jr’s Jimmy wants to be Robert Downey Jr — a self-made character that is uses for many films that aren’t technically characters.
Lastly, Spader’s Morgan just wants to fit into his own skin, but to do that, he must shed the adaptive traits that play on his mixtape of multiple personalities. In that way, he’s very much like you or me, trying to figure out who we are. But learning this doesn’t have to come by causing such severe escalations, nor should the sacrifice come with such a hefty price tag.
At the very least, true growth comes with making amazing mistakes that keep us in check, and allow us to grow.
Written by: Stephen Radford