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Tuff Turf
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by Jack Sommersby

"Slight Better Than Its Lame Title"
3 stars

One of those New World Pictures of the '80s that's alluring in a strange kind of way.

There's no way on God's green earth I could heartily recommend a piece of shameless piece of crude exploitation like the Los Angeles high-school action picture Tuff Turf (it's about as intelligent as its title), yet at the same time it's hard to entirely dismiss because it's admittedly colorful and enjoyable in an undemanding kind of way. There isn't an original thing in it, mind you, but it gets the job done barely enough to warrant a curious look-see. A fabulous blonde actor by the name of James Spader, who made quite an impression in a supporting role as Brooke Shields's protective brother in Endless Love and in a leading one as Robert Mitchum's fugitive son in the TV thriller A Killer in the Family, stars as the rebellious seventeen-year-old Morgan Hiller, a former Ivy League prep-school student who's been relocated to the tough streets of the City of Angels in public school after his once-wealthy real-estate father has lost his job due to a crash in the housing market in the Northeast and is trying to resurrect his career. Morgan is intelligent, but he has discipline issues and refuses to conform, with a checkered history at his last school that included disruptive rooftop rock concerts; his new guidance counselor acutely tells him on his first day he has enough screw-ups to deal with as it is and doesn't want to waste his time on a good imitation. Lo and behold, though, the night before this first day he's already irked the ire of the school's leading gang member Nick Hauser (Paul Mones) by thwarting a downtown robbery attempt of a man lured into his clutches by his complicit girlfriend Frankie (Kim Richards); recognizing Morgan as he arrives at school, Nick let's everyone know he's "dead meat," which results in one of Nick's cronies destroying Morgan's five-hundred bicycle with a speeding car, and arriving home his mother makes clear she isn't going to tolerate Morgan getting himself into trouble again. Morgan picks up an ally in the person of the appealing and mischievous Jimmy (Robert Downey, Jr.), who warns him not to even think of trying to romance the attractive Frankie, but Morgan, positively smitten, can't help himself. From here, this quite-overlong movie (it clocks in at just under eight minutes under the two-hour mark, with clunky editing making you feel the running time) indulges in stereotypes and cliches galore, which the director, Fritz Kiersch, who managed to give the unsuccessful adaptation of Stephen King's short story Children of the Corn some adeptness the year before, handles with some semblances of agility. There's a terrific dance sequence at a night club that's been energetically staged and bursting with energy, and the scenes between Morgan and his understanding father (the solid Matt Clark) have some genuine dramatic gravitas - they're so touching together I wish an entire story had centered around them. On the minus side, Richards is okay but unresourceful as the love interest, and Mones hasn't the variety or menace to make Nick much of a memorable villain; yes, they've been saddled with mediocre dialogue, but both Spader and Downey, Jr. are stuck with the same lackluster verbiage yet rise above it. One can definitely quibble with Morgan bringing a pair of frigging BB pistols to the final showdown in a warehouse knowing perfectly well his adversaries are packing actual heat (surely his resourceful streetwise self could've acquired some real fire power what with Frankie's life at stake), but Tuff Turf possesses enough in the way of engaging entertainment value to just put it over the top. I wasn't bored, and with a good soundtrack of pop hits and Kiersch's eye for sometimes-interesting detail and maturity at shaping individual scenes given what he signed up to work with, the whole damn thing works on a purely responsive, primordial level. It succeeds with a kind of unapologetic semi-aplomb so you needn't beat yourself the next morning over having helplessly surrendered to it.

It's been lucky with good transfers on both DVD and Blu-Ray.

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originally posted: 09/19/20 09:01:40
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  11-Jan-1985 (R)



Directed by
  Fritz Kiersch

Written by
  Jette Rinck

  James Spader
  Kim Richards
  Paul Mones
  Matt Clark
  Robert Downey, Jr.

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