Originally posted in 2010 at Forces of Geek.
Tuff Turf should be much worse than it is. Let’s start with the title: Tuff Turf? Really? Gee, that’s sort of… lame. Let’s move on to the premise: A rebellious preppy battles a tough Los Angeles gang. While that description alone is enough to win my cheese-loving heart, I would not be so bold as to assume such a film would be, like, good.
You know what? It’s good. No, really. Or if “good” is too strong, it’s at least executed with competence, enthusiasm, and a fair amount of panache from all concerned parties.
Directed by Fritz Kiersch, Tuff Turf is a 1985 B-movie starring James Spader as Morgan Hiller, a smart, rebellious teen with an uncanny knack for making life more difficult for himself. Transplanted from posh Connecticut to what we’re supposed to infer is a rough, gang-ridden section of Los Angeles (actually, much of the film was shot in the not-especially-dangerous San Fernando Valley), Morgan immediately runs afoul of a tough local gang, led by resident bad boy Nick Hauser (Paul Mones). Morgan first crosses Nick’s radar when he thwarts his attempt to mug some poor dude at a bus stop, so Nick and his gang trash Morgan’s bicycle in retaliation. Thanks to Morgan’s penchant for flinging kerosene and lit matches everywhere he goes, a minor conflict burgeons into all-out war: Morgan dances with Nick’s hot girlfriend Frankie (Kim Richards) at a nightclub, so Nick steals his Porsche—which Morgan, rebel that he is, stole earlier that evening—and sticks a dead rat in his locker. Morgan takes Frankie for a joyride in Nick’s car, so Nick and his gang beat the stuffing out of him. Morgan invites Frankie to dinner with his folks, so Nick ambushes Morgan’s dad. Morgan and Frankie have mind-blowingly awesome sex, so Nick lures Morgan into a huge climactic showdown, during which they attack each other with axes, nail-studded two-by-fours, lead pipes, dart guns, handguns, and angry Dobermans.
This, as you might imagine, is all quite awesome.
Robert Downey (billed minus the now-omnipresent “Jr” at this nascent stage in his career) plays an amiable nitwit named Jimmy who becomes Morgan’s friend and ally. They meet-cute during Morgan’s first day at his new school when Jimmy pulls a switchblade on him for no particular reason, then has to ask Morgan for help getting the damn thing closed. Spader and Downey, who would later reunite onscreen in Less Than Zero, are wholly believable as good buddies; they share an easygoing, almost flirtatious vibe, which makes their scenes together a joy to watch.
As far as teen screen characters go, Morgan is a corker. He reads Shakespeare recreationally! He has posters of Einstein on his bedroom walls! He’s an ace sharpshooter and a superb yachtsman! In his black leather jacket and Ray-Bans, his crisp Oxford shirts and immaculate cable-knit sweaters, he’s an instant icon, a Porsche-stealing, bebop-singing preppy avenging angel.
Morgan squirms to escape the shadow of his older brother Brian, a preppy par excellence and their mother’s clear favorite. Bonus points to the film for its somewhat nuanced portrayal of Morgan’s parents: He clashes constantly with his prissy and disapproving mom (Claudette Nevins), but, in a nice change of pace, the film’s not unsympathetic toward her. Despite his good intentions, Morgan is clearly a problem child, and he’s clearly not always right. After getting pummeled by Nick and his buddies, Morgan sulks and snarls at his exasperated parents, until his dad (Matt Clark) tells him to knock off the self-pitying crap. (Dad then gives his son an impassioned pep talk about Living Life to the Fullest and Staying True to Yourself; it’s not a bad character moment, but his time might be better spent lecturing the kid about maybe not stealing Porsches or boinking the hot girlfriends of violent, crazy gang members.)
There’s a fun, loose, gonzo energy to the film from start to finish. In addition to seeming to get a kick out of each other’s company, Frankie and Morgan, who are a couple of sleek, sexy, hard-bodied creatures, have mad chemistry together, which goes a long way toward explaining why these two keep cheerfully placing themselves in mortal danger by sneaking around under Nick’s nose. There’s a delirious sequence in which Morgan, Jimmy and Frankie crash a party at a snooty Beverly Hills country club, where Jimmy dons a fake accent and steals lobsters while Morgan bores his fellow preppies to tears with his hilariously earnest lecture about finger sandwiches. (Out of self-preservation, I am opting to ignore how Morgan then brings the movie crashing to a halt by commandeering a piano and singing an impassioned ballad to Frankie. Some things cannot be unseen.)
Aficionados of 1980s kitsch (guilty as charged) will find much to love about Tuff Turf. I could write a doctoral thesis on the iconic bad-girl fashions worn by Frankie and her sidekicks Ronnie (Olivia Barash) and Feather (Catya Sassoon, Vidal’s daughter, who died of a heart attack at age 33). The skin-tight jeans with the multiple chain belts! The red high-heeled pumps paired with ankle socks! The fingerless gloves, the suspenders, the hoop earrings, the skinny headbands worn low across the forehead! It’s not a great look on everyone, but Richards, with her waist-length hair and freakishly long legs, makes it seem pretty appealing.
There’s a limit to how far I’ll go to defend the virtues of Tuff Turf. It’s not a flawless movie. The film’s stabs at humor tend to fall flat, and did I mention the part where Morgan sings a ballad? Ballad aside, the synth-heavy soundtrack is solid, with strong contributions from Marianne Faithfull and the late Jim Carroll, who also makes a cool, weird cameo appearance as himself.
In the twenty-five years since Tuff Turf’s release, Spader has become a four-time Emmy winner while Downey, of course, has evolved into Hollywood’s much-lauded golden child. Poor Kim Richards, on the other hand, is currently best known for her real-life role as Paris Hilton’s maternal aunt. Soon, Richards will make a return to the spotlight as one of the featured cast members of Bravo’s upcoming series, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Maybe she’ll emerge from it with her dignity intact*, but it’s hard not to feel a little melancholy about the idea that fresh-faced, feisty Frankie grew up to become a product of the Hollywood reality-show machine.
One final note: The screenplay is credited to someone named Jette Rinck, which might or might not be an alias: “Jett Rink” is the name of the character played by James Dean in Giant. Per IMDB, Rinck has one other credit to his/her name, that of a technical advisor on a mid-90s film about teen witches. Back when I was a screenwriting major at USC’s film school, I checked out the Tuff Turf script from the film library (it pays to study the masters). Contrary to expectations, the draft I read was several notches inferior to what wound up on the screen. I don’t remember too many details now, but the script ended with Morgan and Jimmy taking their SATs while Frankie quips that, while she’s too dumb to take the test herself, she’d be happy to hold their pencils. This can’t compare to the filmed ending, in which a triumphant Morgan, Frankie, Jimmy and Ronnie, having vanquished Nick, bop around happily to Jack Mack and the Heart Attack at a swanky nightclub while credits roll.
*Note: This review was originally written in 2010. As even the most casual viewer of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills knows, Richards did not emerge from it with her dignity intact.