As the lead-up to Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader facing off against each other in this May’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, odds are that you’ll read and hear a lot about their last cinematic pairing in 1987’s iconic Less Than Zero. However, that wasn’t the only time they shared the screen together. Two years prior to that Bret Easton Ellis adaptation, Spader and Downey Jr. co-starred in one of the most out there 1980s teen films, Tuff Turf, which hit theaters 30 years ago today.
Janet Maslin called Tuff Turf schizophrenic in her review of the film, and that’s a fairly apt description of the film. The movie isn’t just one teen film, it’s six teen films in one. It’s a “fish out of water” story and a “romance from opposite sides of the track” story. It’s a “parents just don’t understand” story an a “fighting bullies” drama. It’s even, at times, a wacky teen age farce and a teen musical. It’s amazing why this film hasn’t become more of a cult favorite over the past 30 years.
Spader stars as Morgan Hiller, a teenager who was forced out of a life of affluence in Connecticut after his father’s business failed. The family relocated to Los Angeles and while exploring his new hometown on his bike, Morgan comes across a robbery in progress. His quick thinking thwarts the crime, which is not a good thing for him because the robbery was being committed by the toughest kid in his new high school, an all-around thug named Nick (Paul Montes). Morgan’s good deed draws unwanted attention from Nick and his crew, but also welcome attention from Nick’s girlfriend, Frankie (Kim Richards). Morgan finds an unlikely ally in his rivalry with Nick in class clown, Jimmy (Downey Jr.), but even he is not enough to help the conflict escalation to multiple cases of attempted murder.
Tuff Turf was Spader’s first leading role and he had already settled into the erudite preppy character he would become famous for years later, albeit with a serious rebellious streak. It’s weird to see him here, in such a physical role (the climax is one long fistfight between him and Nick) when you mostly think of him as a cerebral actor. Downey Jr. is great in a small role, one of his first and right before his star began to climb with roles in Weird Science and Back to School. He is mainly there to provide Spader’s character what he needed exactly when he needs it, be it a switchblade, a ride or cavalry in the form of his two pet Doberman Pinschers. But his manic performance acts as a good counterpoint to Spader’s rather laconic lead one.
I saw this film not long after it came out on video. It was a chance encounter. In these days of digital rentals and every film ever made being available for rental at the click of a button, there’s a whole generation who weren’t even alive during the 80s and who don’t remember a trip to the video store being an adventure in diminishing choices. You go there to try and get one of that week’s new releases, which were almost all rented out. Then you went to any newish release. Then to the back catalog. That’s where I first found this film.
My main memory of this film was the enormous crush I got for Kim Richards after watching this. That same generation that has never been in a video store only knows Richards as the self-perpetuating train wreck from the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but once, Richards was a successful child star of numerous Disney offerings and network TV shows. Tuff Turf was obvious an attempt for Richards to move on to more adult roles–complete with the obligatory, body-doubled love scene–but while she held her own with the material, as well or better than Spader and Downey Jr. did, this would prove not to be her gateway into a grown-up film career, but rather one of her last films altogether. She would go five years until her next film, Escape, which was written and produced by her then-husband G.Monty Brisson, and then 16 years after that with her small role in Black Snake Moan.
Richards wasn’t the only person to go on to a less than stellar career. The film was director Fritz Kiersch’s second film (following after 1984’s Children of the Corn), and he went on down the B-movie spiral from here on out. Paul Montes carved out a career as a writer and director, but would only have two small acting roles in the next 30 years. and of the trio of writers responsible for this film, Jette Rinck, Greg Collins O’Neil and Murray Michaels, only Collins O’Neil would have any credits after this one.
This was one of my favorite films as a teenager, and not just because of my crush on the then-foxy Kim Richards. However, looking back on this in hindsight, this could very well have been where my love for so-bad-it’s-good cinema came from. The film does have its moments where it works, but there are a whole lot more moments where it just doesn’t work at all. It’s a film best enjoyed if you don’t ask those annoying questions that deserve to be answered. Such as, why did Morgan’s dad relocate the family to Los Angeles to become a cab driver when he lost his business instead of some place closer to Connecticut, like say New York City? Were switchblades really that prevalent in Los Angeles high schools of the 1980s? Did impromptu yet impeccably choreographed dance numbers spontaneously erupt in punk rock shows in the region? And are we supposed to believe the 29-year-old Montes, the 25-year-old Spader, the 20-year-old Richards, and the 19-year-old Downey Jr. are really high school kids?
A lot of the issues here come with the variance of tone. An example comes about halfway through the film. There’s a “I’ll show you my world, you show me yours” scene the type you’d find in many teen comedies of the day. Morgan takes Frankie, Jimmy and Frankie’s friend, Ronnie (Olivia Barash) on a ride through Beverly Hills to show them how the other half lives (which now has an added level of comedy as we see Frankie looking out of the window, wistfully gazing at the million dollar homes. It’s supposed to be her looking at something that she’ll never have. All I was hearing as I was watching it was Kim Richards saying “I’ll live there, they’ll be a hair-pulling fight there, me and my friends will get drunk there, there and there”).
Morgan takes them to a country club luncheon and the film becomes an all-out farce as the slum kids try to fit in with the stuck-up trust fund babies. It is a fairly funny scene. Then things get serious as Morgan takes the stage and pitches woo to Frankie in song. This is that song:
“I feel your face/I hear your eyes.” That poor girl couldn’t help but fall in love with Morgan right then and there. And, no, that’s not James Spader’s voice (it was actually that of Paul Carney, who I believe was Art Carney’s son, an L.A. piano bar musician at the time), but he should have gotten an Oscar nomination just for the passion with which he lip synced.
The question becomes whether or not we should take that seriously. The lyrics are absurd, but the context leads us to believe that it is a serious moment. Yet it takes place in a light and humorous scene. Of course, all bets are off during the third act, where a crazed Nick shoots Morgan’s father (Matt Clark). That’s when things turn really serious from then on out. Except over the end credits where we get a dance sequence featuring Morgan, Frankie, Jimmy and Ronnie celebrating the fact that they are all still alive. The tone was pretty much all over the place.
But the tone isn’t the only thing that was unorthodox about the film. The soundtrack was also unique. While it was synth heavy because, well, the 80s, it wasn’t quite as pop-oriented as most soundtracks were at the time. No, there wasn’t any songs by Irene Cara or Kenny Loggins in the mix. Instead, we got Lene Lovich, Southside Johnny, Marianne Faithful and The Jim Carroll Band. Carroll, a legendary artist and poet who was the inspiration for Leonardo DiCaprio character in The Basketball Diaries, appears as himself in the film, fronting Jimmy’s band. Local L.A. bar favorites of the time, Jack Mack and the Heart Attacks, also appear in the film and on the soundtrack.
If you want to check out the film for yourself, you can rent the film for $2.99 or buy the film for $4.99 from Amazon Instant Video, or, if you are a traditionalist, you can buy a DVD copy of the film, which also comes with director Kiersch’s 1989 film, Under the Boardwalk, at Amazon for $6.99.