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Tuff Turf

It’s taken me over 10 months to process seeing the James Spader/Robert Downey, Jr. vehicle ‘Tuff Turf’ (1985), and I’m still trying to fully comprehend what I saw. This is a genuinely strange film from surface to structure  - as if an 80s movie algorithm put a script together and no human bothered to give it a pass before filming.

Let’s start with the script:  the movie opens extraordinarily high-concept and just keeps piling it on: our protagonist is the young black sheep of a wealthy Connecticut family. Well, they were wealthy; as the movie opens the family’s living in the lower-middle class part of town with former-banker-dad now driving a taxi and mom mourning the family’s fall from yuppie grace. So within this family adjusting to a new income bracket, our protagonist rebels against his family’s former upper-class and current bourgeoisie values. Got that? MOVING ON.

Our young rebel, Steff Morgan, played by James Spader, is forced to start over at dreaded public school in their upper-lower-class town after being kicked out of all available private schools, much to his mother’s chagrin. Said school, populated by every 80s trope save skiing (I’m pretty sure someone was radboarding over their breakdancing friends in the parking lot) is ruled by the most shirtless gang this side of the Warriors.

shirtless gang

Hazing involves renouncing buttons.

Unfortunately for Morgan, he’s already on the gang’s bad side/in love with their alpha girl after interrupting their nighttime mugging kicks on his bike (adding in the 80s trope of bike shenanigans). Inquiries concerning the becrimped young lady lead to an oddball friendship with Jimmy Parker (Robert Downey Jr. still in the ‘goofy punk sidekick’ phase of his career) and his bike getting destroyed by the gang leader’s car after school.

Jimmy’s in a punk band with Jim Carroll (checking ‘punk’ and ‘band’ off the list) and invites Morgan to the show. It’s the 80s and every town has a warehouse set aside for The Punk Club, just like the other side of town has its Posh Club for Toffs on the water. Who should Morgan run into but Frankie, the crimped love of his life (her hair is a marvel unto itself- that must take HOURS every day, and constant vigilance not to get it caught in every door). At first, Frankie’s resistant to Morgan’s confident insistence they date despite her already having a gang-leader boyfriend. Only through the magic of awkwardly choreographed line dancing, a la Pat Benatar videos and ‘Footloose’, does he begin to win her over. Their dancing is interrupted by fight-dancing on the part of said boyfriend’s heavies, leading to a ‘don’t mess with my girl’ car theft. Joke’s on the gang though, as they get pulled over and the boyfriend’s arrested for car theft! Hah! Now that he’s out of the way, nothing can stand between Morgan and his crimped woman. Well, nothing save CLASS ISSUES.

At first, everyone wins everyone over after taking a tour of ‘their world’ – Morgan takes Frankie and her trashy friends to crash the Rich Kids Regatta and irk the maitre’d, Frankie takes Morgan to some weird club featuring the jazz stylings of  a lesser-Doobie Brothers, shows off dance skills likely reflecting her future employment opportunities, and everyone falls in love.

a lesser Doobie Brothers
Popular Youth Music.

JUST THEN Frankie’s boyfriend gets out of jail (I’m assuming he wasn’t charged as a minor because he’s definitely over 23) and proceeds to chainwhip Spader in a fairly brutal scene (few PG13 movies feature the nearly-nude lead getting chain-whipped by a group of shirtless dudes. Hell, few porn movies do).

so damn shirtlessPictured: not a porn movie.

But the physical brutality is nothing compared to the icy emotional rain showered down upon Frankie at the family dinner Morgan invites her to. Frankie isn’t  upper-middle class (forget the fact Morgan’s mom isn’t either, at the moment), and she never will be. Leaving distraught, the message for Frankie to stop striving for upward mobility’s reinforced by her solidly criminal boyfriend, who decides to vengeance-whomp Morgan’s taxi-driving dad in a misplaced bout of rage. Do you see? DO YOU SEE HOW QUICKLY CONVOLUTED THIS GETS?!

Morgan’s dad turns out to be surprisingly good at self-defense for someone who presumably spent decades as a soft, white-collar office drone. He takes on all three punks at once and is kicking ass, so Frankie’s boyfriend pulls out a gun AND SHOOTS HIM (more on the ridiculous escalations of violence in this film in a moment). Morgan’s family blames The Lower-Class Girl, but Morgan still cares for her (shown via requisite slo-mo love scene. Ew). Frankie’s boyfriend’s on the run and has a taste for blood now. After Frankie scotches his second attempt at adding ‘murder’ to his rap sheet, he calls Morgan and demands he meet him for a final showdown at The Warehouse (checking….warehouse…off the list). The remainder of the movie is the final, extraordinarily bloody showdown between Frankie’s lower-class thug boyfriend and Spader’s yuppie rebel doing his best ‘Straw Dogs’ impersonation. Not surprisingly, Morgan comes out on top and everyone ends up in the Doobie Bros. strip club dancing like no one’s watching (at least that’s the best explanation we canhope for that sort of flailing), but NOT before the following happens:

- James Spader holding two guns while kicking a man down the stairs

down he goes

- Pistol whippings for everyone!

- Robert Downey is revealed to be apparently Latino, shows up with large, convenient attack dogs (because he’s Latino), gets shot in leg

Attack, ye dogs!

(told you so.)

- Frankie proves willing to shoot her boyfriend; gun, alas, is empty

- Soon, they’ll make a board with a nail so big it will DESTROY THE WORLD!

- Seriously though, don’t bring a board with nails in it to an axe fight.

Now. There is already A LOT to unpack here, but let’s focus first on this movie’s wild leaps in violence. Moving from ‘win the girl’ to ‘shooting your dad’ to ‘gang fight in the abandoned warehouse with attack dogs’ – This is Morgan’s THIRD DAY OF SCHOOL, WHAT THE HELL. Also, Robert Downey Jr. was shot in the leg, and the next day (I’m presuming it’s not the same day) he’s back dancing at the club! HE’S NOT EVEN LIMPING. The strange bubble of extreme brutality this movie exists in is hinted right from the start – the second scene of the movie features Morgan watching beetles crawl the walls of his family’s new slum before popping up (shirtless, of course), guns blazing, to shoot them into blue oblivion. And yet no one comments or calls the cops after hearing shots fired, nor does his family seem to mind/care their rebellious son has two guns of his own.


An aside: so much teen shirtlessness. It’s an epidemic in this town. Hot pants, no shirts,  half-shirts, just vests, unitards. Is there no dress code at this school?

meets the dress codePictured: A totally acceptable school outfit.

Maybe that’s the heart of this town’s violence issues, along with poor curriculum centered around woefully out of date fictional history films teaching Gunfighters had to save The Settlers. “They brought a new code to the Old West…a code written in their blood and the blood of the men they faced!” So, getting back to the violence, the lesson Morgan learns first day at his new school from this film is ‘bad people have to die for things to get better’. And he meets his new best friend as the young man hands him a switchblade to deal with a ‘problem’ that hasn’t even happened yet. Yep, seems on par for this movie’s universe, and definitely helps explains the ending where everyone’s hanging at Club Wacky Band like Morgan DIDN’T JUST KILL FRANKIE’S BOYFRIEND IN A WAREHOUSE. But hey, the boyfriend was ‘bad’ and wouldn’t ever change; he didn’t even show signs of upward class mobility and so he had to die. It also didn’t help the guy he went up against, Morgan, also overreacts with toughness no matter the situation, leading to the aforementioned deadly nailboard/axe face-off.


James Spader. James Spader, the very concept of Preppie so courses through your veins, they had to make it part of your character’s background even if it went against all logic. I’m not sure I could’ve even believed him coming from a working class family. It’s no coincidence one of  his most memorable roles is jaded preppie Steff in ’16 Candles’ – he is that character, wallowing in the horror of realization money can only buy things he’s already bored with.  Given the intensity of his performance towards the end of this movie, stealthily kicking ass and Gymkata-ing the bad guys, his blood-smeared, malevolent smile brandishing that axe (again with the escalation in this film), oh, they should’ve used him in a horror movie. They should have cast  him in an 80s version of ‘American Psycho’. I suppose it would have been too soon, too on-the-nose. Still, he technically killed Robert Downey in Easton Ellis’s ‘Less Than Zero’; close enough.

psycho spader

He also killed my personal sense of dignity when in ‘Tuff Turf’ he sits down to sing his lady a ballad (checking emotions through song/dance off the list). I must admit, I didn’t actually watch this. Couldn’t actually watch this. You try watching a man who excels at projecting detached, smug superiority project raw, earnest endearment. It just doesn’t work, and I got the sense while watching even he didn’t buy it. Still, he plays along gamely, and given his solid portrayal of an overly-enthusiastic Egyptologist in ‘Stargate’ 9 years later, the fault seems to be with the singing, not the acting.

spader singsSpader Sings!


Given Morgan and his family were bland yuppies before all this, where the hell did he and his dad learn their superfighting skills? I’d like to see the prequel where Morgan’s older brother (beloved preppie golden boy of the family) was sacrificed to mom’s wish for a lawyer in the family; while mother and son have a disturbingly close relationship in the background, father and Morgan band together to take on their town’s bad guys, one fistfight at a time. Maybe that’s why dad lost his job and seems so mildly concerned by it in ‘Tuff Turf’; his family was run out of town by some no-good fat-cat sheriff and the rich jerks under his protection in the prequel. That movie ends on more of a ‘Chinatown’ feel, then we pick up with ‘Tuff Turf’. Which somehow must belong to the same space as ‘Breakin’ Two: Electic Boogaloo’, due to sheer quantity of half-shirts. Wait…The principal does warn Morgan away from ‘holding rock concerts on the roof’ when he gets called into the office…’Breakin’ 2′ came out a mere year before…the rich jerks from ‘Breakin’ 2′ could be the same rich jerks who screwed over Morgan’s dad’s business in the prequel! WE’RE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS HERE, PEOPLE. I’d like to see a follow-up movie as well, where Morgan and Robert Downey, Jr. go off to college, and it’s a direct cross between wacky screwball college romp and Falling Down. Those scum are gonna get a higher education….in pain. Something like that. We’ll workshop it.


Turns out this movie has its fans:

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Hello, and welcome once again to the Instant View Movie Club, the weekly film review for the lazy cinephile. Next week’s film will be a harrowing peek into the dark corners, not ‘My Super Sweet 16: The Movie’, but Ingmar Bergmen’s ‘Hour Of The Wolf’, chosen partly because the title’s mentioned in Oingo Boingo’s ‘No One Lives Forever’. First though, let’s revisit this week’s film:

From the 30-second clip last week, I suspected 1927′s ‘The Cat And The Canary’ would be entertaining, but nothing prepared me for camp of this magnitude:

Layered, giant, hovering cats! An old man trapped in bottles dropping dead! Metaphor made head-bangingly literal! THIS is how you open a movie, people! Right from the start ‘The Cat And The Canary’ avoids the staginess plaguing so many movies (including modern ones) adapted from plays, utilizing its medium to full potential. The liberal use of tracking shots is surprising considering the era; imagine the poor cameraman who had to carry a full-weight 35mm camera down hallways and around corners. It’s also extremely effective, putting the viewer right into the path of danger and letting them experience the setting in complete dimensionality. The use of layering to evoke all senses is also clever; it’s hard not to hear the clock gonging as the hammers hit twelve o’clock.

Even the intertitles get into the act, with plenty of animation and comic-style lettering:

I’m not sure exactly why, but this fellow reminded me of John Hodgeman:

It could just be the suit and glasses. And what a rare treat, to have two typical ‘leading man’ types relegated to the background in favor of a well-meaning nerd/cowardly comic relief in the fore! Sorry ladies, you’ll have to wait for this guy’s next romantic comedy to swoon:

This film was just the right blend of genuine entertainment and campy goodness. I haven’t really set up any sort of rating system and find Netflix’s pentatonic 5-star notes limiting, so let’s just say, I highly recommend it. Normally this would be an extensive essay on the film’s various points, but as there are other posts to post here’s a random selection of thoughts:

This was one of my favorite sequences in the movie.

Monster hands reaching out towards the unaware and trapdoors opening to reveal bodies are clichèd now, but back then this was some Wim Wenders shit.

Here’s a helpful hint- if people are constantly accusing you of being insane, you may want to tone down the crazy eyes.

Tommy Lee Jones makes a guest appearance.

For a second I thought the film was going to turn into ‘Un Chien Andalou’. Considering the timing and popularity of the movie, I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘Un Chien Andalou’ was influenced by ‘The Cat And The Canary’, in particular this weird scene with the doctor. Everything about it was unnerving, especially the constant danger the heroine seemed to be in from the seemingly benign doctor:

Creepy hands!

Portrayals of the mentally insane weren’t as sensitive in the past.

This yokel direct from Central Casting had to be an inspiration for Disney’s Ichabod Crane.

And now, what you all came here to see:


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Driving south on I-95, it is nigh impossible to ignore the looming tourist trap known as South of the Border. About 2 hours away, you encounter billboards with puns so bad they burn into your brain. You think about nothing else since there is nothing else distract on this stretch of 95, save swerving tractor-trailers trying to reach Florida on time. Getting closer, the billboards increase and grow stranger, some implying crashing your car is preferable to missing this totally amazing place. Yet closer, a sign every 100 ft. announces the imminent arrival of South of the Border. By the time you actually drive up near the gaudy neon mass of buildings, the sheer loathing of this place foisted on you over the last 3 hours is so strong you almost stop in just to throw a rock at it.

On the way down we skipped it and stopped at ordinary convenience stores. Fun Fact: most southern stores carry a local paper featuring everyone who got arrested that week, complete with mug shots, for only $2!

Unfortunately on the return trip the billboards wore us down and we had to slake curiosity. I give you: South of the Border.

Situated just south of the North Carolina border (haw), South of the Border is a sprawling, motley collection of buildings and neon with a Mexican/Vegas theme in South Carolina.

Located near a sizable Army base, the park’s seediness sits cheek-and-jowl with family fare. There’s a Dirty Old Man shop (actual name) in the back of a t-shirt store offering hardcore porn amongst other items, and a Pleasure Dome with cheap hotel rooms and a large jacuzzi area.

In case you were wondering what it looked like, in South of the Border did Paco a stately pleasure dome decree.

Paco isn’t just South of the Border’s vague ‘mascot’, it’s also the name of all employees regardless of gender, race, or actual nationality.

When we went the place was nearly deserted. No other families, no one in any of the enormous parking lots, and many of the restaurants were closed.

Turns out this Coffee Shop was mostly souvenir shop anyway, staffed by two surly women manning turnstiles in. Our minds boggled at the sheer amount of ridiculous cheap crap surrounding us.

Get it? South of the Border? SOB? Eh? Eeeehhhhh?

I can’t identify any of the animals here.

These towels were a bizarre combination of dirty grandpa humor and random nonsense.


On the flipside were these posi-core laminated placemat/posters, though outside of Williamsburg types going through their early-90s revival phase I’m not sure who’d buy them.

The Sombrero Tower had a weak arcade at the bottom featuring half the machines off and a pool table around which some people were playing and smoking.

Is Fort Pedro really licensed to sell mortars?

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