Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tuff Turf

Oh, how I love 80s cinema. It's all joie de vivre dipped in nihilism, like a Reese's peanut butter cup of self-absorbed doom. As if we were just one Duran Duran song away from total nuclear annihilation. That's if you didn't get AIDS first. The best you could do is throw on some parachute pants and crank up some Thompson Twins and dance the night away.

Not that any of this has anything to do with Tuff Turf, mind you. Sure, the film is dark in its own way, the fashions are steeped in a lot of day-glo, and there is even a dance number at a new wave club. But the story itself is as old as dirt.

James Spader plays twenty-five year old high school student and new kid in town Morgan Hiller. Morgan is special; he has not one but two backstories: First, he was recently expelled from yet another expensive prep school. He's a bright kid, but something of a bad seed. Secondly, his father recently lost his business and has been forced to move the family from Connecticut to Reseda, California and take a job as a taxi driver to make ends meet. (I suppose technically that could be considered Morgan's father's backstory, but...)

Three things happen on Morgan's first day at his new school. 1.) He befriends Jimmy, a goofy kid who also happens to play drums for the Jim Carroll Band. 2.) He runs afoul of Nick and his gang of hooligans. 3.) He falls for Nick's girl, a vixen with crimped hair named Frankie.

Morgan tries to woo Frankie, first by staring penetratingly at her as the goons destroy his bike. That doesn't exactly work, but it does shake her just a bit. Later, at a Jim Carroll Band show in a warehouse, Morgan continues his seduction by forcing himself on her during the film's obligatory dance sequence. There was a time when every teen romance movie required a dance sequence. Nowadays teen romance movies require someone to hump a pie. Are we better or worse off here?

Anyway, through some convoluted plot points I'm not going to bother to explain, Morgan ends up behind the wheel of Nick's car. When he pulls up in front the local burger joint, Frankie and her best pal Ronnie (what is up with all the girls with the mannish names in this anyway?) jump inside, not knowing Nick isn't driving. Ronnie immediately begins to make out with Jimmy in the back seat, making her only slightly more impulsive than her friend. But Frankie, oh, she's pissed and wants out. Morgan refuses to pull over. So, I guess first being dry humped at a new wave concert then abducted against your will is what gets the girls hot back in Connecticut.

Unfortunately for us, this doesn't work on Frankie. But Morgan has one more trick up his sleeve. I say unfortunately because this leads us to one of those other fads from the 80s: mediocre actors singing mediocre love songs. But let me take a couple steps back. Morgan knows something the other kids don't. Every Friday is Teen Day at your average country club. (As far as I could tell this was the only reason Morgan had the used-to-be-a-rich-kid backstory. Now, if I could just figure why his dad is a cabbie.) He bluffs his way in and they feast on lobster and pâté and mingle oh so inelegantly with the rich kids. And, as I mentioned, this leads to the mediocre love song. Morgan sneaks his was up to the piano and serenades Frankie with a rather crappy tune titled "We Walk The Night." It's kind of like "She's Like The Wind" but worse, if you can fathom that.

Somehow, this works, and Frankie finally accepts an invitation to Morgan's for dinner.

Needless to say, Nick is pissed, and after dinner he abducts her. Always the victim, she is. They spend the night aimlessly driving around town, or so it seems. But Nick's been looking for something, or someone... And then he finds it: Morgan's dad! So, that's why he was a cabbie! Nick plugs a couple bullets into the old man.

So Nick calls Morgan and tells him to meet him at the warehouse for some sort of final showdown. Or something. I'm not sure what the idea was, but nonetheless Morgan shows up for some sort of final showdown. Or something. Morgan and Jimmy and some Dobermans (seriously) duke it out with Nick and his gang. Frankie is rescued, Jimmy is shot in the leg, and well, I don't know what happens to the rest of the cast. I'm not sure if dad died or not from his wounds, or if Nick did either for that matter. The film suddenly jumps to Morgan and Frankie at a Jack Mack and the Heart Attack concert, so I guess everything was fine.

If only Jack Mack and the Heart Attack really could make everything better. But hey, I guess we don't have to worry about the Russians nuking us anymore, so Jack Mack must have been doing something right.

Really, James Spader is too old to be believable as a high school student. Same with the rest of the cast. The story bounces from not-very-interesting to really-kind-of-dumb, and never manages to engage us. It certainly isn't saying anything new. It's probably not aiming for that, so maybe that's fine. Spader is always competent as the cynical, know-it-all type who's maybe a bit weary of it all under the surface. Even when he's playing a high school kid.

Directed by Fritz Kiersch • R • 1984 • 110 minutes

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