We Hate Movies is the gold standard for bad movie podcasts. One of their best features is that they shy away from obvious features like Troll 2, The Room, and Birdemic, instead finding largely forgotten curios like the Lethal Weapon also-ran Number One with a Bullet, the Michael Caine movie in which he might be a wizard Shock to the System, and the terrifying Ricki Lake accidental-horror film Babycakes. They introduced me to this week’s entry, the 1985 hard-boiled gangland musical Tuff Turf, and when it appeared on Netflix instant, I could not help myself. I immediately regretted this decision.
Tagline: Meet Morgan Hiller. He’s a rebel about to become a hero.
More Accurate Tagline: Meet Morgan Hiller. He just wants his bike back.
Guilty Party: There’s a lot of blame to go around, but I’m going to put things on the shoulders of director Fritz Kiersch. Why? Motherfucker directed Gor. Tuff Turf predated Gor by two years, but both films have certain things in common, namely a disregard for narrative that makes you long for the inherent logic and character development of a fever dream.
Synopsis: On the mean streets of Reseda, a shadowy figure rides his badass ten speed to the strains of synth music that sounds like someone beating Depeche Mode to death with pool cues. Meanwhile, a gang — consisting of people we will later get to know as Nick, Other Guy, Mickey (Panchito Gomez, loyal readers remember him as the titular “Gaucho”), Shirtless Guy with a Metal Pipe, and girls Ronnie and Frankie — mug a businessman. In the middle of the mugging, the mysterious figure on the bike reveals himself to be James Spader (James Spader), and for no reason, interrupts the mugging by spraying them with beer, and rides off into the night. After this point, Shirtless Guy With a Metal Pipe vanishes, only to reappear in the climactic battle.
The next morning, Spader lies awake in his bed, watching some beetles crawl over his poster of Einstein. He then pops up and shoots them with a dart gun. If you’re wondering why the director suddenly went off his meds, you are not alone.
The next morning, Spader heads to school. It’s one of those mid-‘80s hellhole schools, as shown by graffiti on the walls, plentiful non-white students, and the depressing lack of pastel sweaters tied jauntily about the neck. Nick and the gang (who, I believe, are called “Tuff,” based on some graffiti and the title of the film, though it’s never actually stated), spot Spader, recognize him as the man who sprayed them with beer, and decide to make his life hell. Spader makes a friend in the form of Robert Downey, Jr., who vanishes and reappears in the narrative like a ghost. Maybe he is a ghost? Duh-duh-duh DOWNEY GHOST!?!
Anyway, Spader visits the guidance counselor, who exposits all over the young man. Seems Spader used to go to a prep school and screwed it up. He’s a ne’er do well, a rogue, a rascal, a rapscallion! Someone should alert the local constabulary and the vicar! And now he’s at Lawson High, a place that would require fewer locker room rapes to qualify as merely nightmarish. (Also, that’s not a rape joke. That’s foreshadowing. Put a pin in that.)
The gang steals Spader’s bike and wrecks it, which was a huge danger in Reseda during the mid-‘80s. While Spader is upset at the gang, he desperately wants to smell the aggressively crimped hair of Frankie (Kim Richards), Nick’s girlfriend. Things get worse when Spader shows up at a party, dances with Frankie, and later Mickey. The gang, upset about this turn, assaults Spader and steals the car he stole. They’re promptly pulled over and arrested for car theft, although for some reason are almost immediately set free. They must have Lindsay Lohan’s lawyer.
At this point, Spader’s older brother Brian enters the narrative, mostly to show what Spader was supposed to become. Namely, a successful businessman or lawyer or something. Spader chafed under those expectations. He just wants to live! Turns out that dad used to be rich and successful, but somehow Spader fucked it all up and now dad drives a cab. Also, dad is played by Matt Clark, who you might remember as Andrea’s dad in “Did You Hear What Happened to Andrea?”
Through a turn of events, RDJ winds up in possession of Mickey’s car, which he and Spader use to trick Ronnie and Frankie into hanging out. They head over to Beverly Hills, where Spader fast talks them into lunch at a country club. He then says to his friends, “You know what to do,” which instantly provokes a wacky montage of each of them dealing with society types. Spader puts a cap on this with an impromptu piano performance of the worst song ever. And it’s the whole goddamn song. Try to imagine the sound a kitten would make as you run it through a meatgrinder. Now add some terrible emo poetry on top. Now put a screwdriver through your ear because no one should have to live in a world where this song exists.
Suddenly, it’s night time. Frankie and Spader are still together, but RDJ and Ronnie have vanished. Since there hasn’t been a terrible song in almost a minute, they go to an ‘80s club. There’s a long, long, song and dance scene. I got up and went to the bathroom and it was still happening when I came out. If I ever need to find a bomb, I’m going to show this scene to every terrorist I find. I will have confessions. Anyway, Frankie and Spader kiss.
Now, because we just did the wacky scene and the romantic scene, we have to get to the rape scenes. Nick shows up in Frankie’s room, and though she specifically says no to sex, he goes ahead with it. Then, the next day in the locker room, Spader gets jumped by Nick, Mickey, and Other Guy. While it makes sense for Spader to be half-dressed, the other guys could really be wearing shirts. Anyway, they beat him, but it’s really shot like a prison rape scene. So yeah. That took a turn.
Dad gives Spader a pep talk, which inspires him to ask Frankie to dinner at his house. Right after she reluctantly agrees, Nick and her father show up in her room with champagne. Seems Nick asked her dad for Frankie’s hand in marriage. Man, I hope he negotiated a good bride price! Also, Nick is wearing a vest with no shirt, so maybe Frankie’s name has him confused about her gender. Spader learns about the engagement, and so the dinner is a little awkward and ends with Frankie storming out, where she is almost immediately picked up by Nick and his gang.
Nick finds Spader’s dad and assaults him in front of Frankie, but then something fucking amazing happens. Spader’s dad just goes nuts on these guys. He’s in his late 40s or so and can’t be more than 5‘6”. These are young street toughs who were able to overpower and symbolically rape Spader, and yet,Spader’s dad starts kicking their asses like he thinks if he punches them hard enough they turn into extra lives. Nick, sporting a hilarious look of abject terror on his face, shoots the dad and flees. I half expected the bulletholes to seal up with liquid metal, but no such luck.
Spader’s dad survives his injuries, because the gang foolishly forgot to pack kryptonite bullets. Frankie apologizes and she and Spader go home and have some soft-focus sex. It’s nice and consensual.
The next day she breaks the news to her dad that the engagement is off, which apparently she did while Nick was standing right there. (It’s in her dad’s convenience store, which Angelenos will recognize as located in Highland Park, but still, she didn’t notice her emotionally unstable fiancee lurking by the chips?) Nick goes ape shit, and beats and kidnaps Frankie. Then he calls Spader to tell him to meet him at a warehouse.
Spader suddenly remembers RDJ exists and goes to his house for help. And in this one, short shot, when Spader talks to RDJ’s brother, they establish that RDJ has a big dog. Seriously. That’s the only time.
Spader breaks into the warehouse alone. First he must deal with Shirtless Guy With a Metal Pipe, who the film has also just remembered exists. Spader uses his dart gun (remember that?) to disarm the guy and pistol whip him into unconsciousness. Then there’s a battle royale which goes badly until RDJ shows up with some dogs, which he sics on Mickey and Other Guy. Spader then defeats Nick in hand to hand combat, and thus now owns Frankie. They celebrate with another song and dance.
Life-Changing Subtext: Women are not objects to be owned. They’re thinking, feeling creatures to be owned.
Defining Quote: Ronnie: “Of course size matters. This is the ‘80s!”
Standout Performance: That honor goes to Panchito Gomez for his use of the highly offensive Spanish insult “maricon.” He really rips into it like he’s fighting shameful urges inside himself.
What’s Wrong: In most Yakmala reviews, my notes invariably feature one line (always in all caps): WHAT IS HAPPENING!?! In Tuff Turf, I knew what was happening, but I never knew why.
Flash of Competence: During Nick’s hunt for Spader’s dad, he listens to the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died.” That’s a good song.
Best Scenes: I don’t know that they’re really “best” scenes, but the music scenes are something else. In the first one (featuring Jim Carroll), Robert Downey, Jr. appears to be wearing a bowtie and no shirt. It’s actually sunglasses worn like a bowtie, but the damage has already been done.
In the country club, the house band is doing a cover of “Twist and Shout” which might be the most ‘80s thing ever, at least until Ronald Reagan fights ninjas for the possession of sixty tons of Peruvian white. Seriously, everyone had a “Twist and Shout” cover in the ‘80s, including me, and I was in elementary school.
Transcendent Moment: Alert readers will notice that the dart gun in the beginning is only used to disarm Shirtless Guy With a Metal Pipe. This means that something only established to take out one guy, only had to be there because the opening established that one guy. Don’t you get it? It’s Chekhov’s Gun as a solution to Chekhov’s Gun! It’s a recursive loop of establishment! Looking into it, and I can feel it looking back at me! THE UNBLINKING EYE OF NARRATIVE! I UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING! I FEEL EVERYTHING! I AM BECOME DEATH THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS!!!
Tuff Turf is far more fun to discuss than it was to watch. But hey, it’s on Netflix Instant. So, uh, there you go.