Forget “Westside Story”: “Tuff Turf”

Ah, the 1980’s. A time when leg warmers were chic; spontaneous, synchronized dances among total strangers were common; and James Spader was sexy and young.

(And, okay, he’s still sexy. He’s just no longer young.)

Aside from a twenty-something Spader looking damn fine in a black leather jacket, and Kim Richards’ rather colorful outfit and provocative pose, the box of Fritz Kiersch’s 1984 high school drama Tuff Turf doesn’t look like anything special. In fact, the tagline—“Where enemies are made, reputations are earned and love is the most risky affair of all.”—makes it seem as though the film is going to be a trashy ‘80’s movie with lots of teenage angst and gangland wars. Think Sixteen Candles meets The Lost Boys, minus the whole vampire thing, of course. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that it was not only a smoldering Spader I could enjoy, but the movie itself.

The movie begins with Nick Hauser, played by the pretty, but tough-looking Paul Mones, and his gang of miscreants hanging out late at night at a local newsstand in downtown Los Angeles. At first, it seems strange that they’re there; they’re not even pilfering the dozing vendor’s money. But the reason quickly becomes obvious when the camera cuts across the street. The colorfully-dressed, very attractive Frankie Croyden (Richards) leans against the wall of a building, while a lone man in a rather nice-looking grey suit stands at a bus stop. Frankie, carrying various school accoutrements—papers, notebooks, etc.—walks up to the man, who, as any breathing heterosexual male would do in the situation gives her the once-over. She “innocently” asks for change for a fiver; and when the man inquires as to why she is out so late alone, she turns on the flirtation—and turns his attention off to anything but her. It’s pretty easy to guess what happens next: Nick comes up behind the man, pulls a switchblade on him, and demands his money. But, suddenly, a blonde youth on a bike speeds through, singing Be-Bop-A-Lula and making snappy comments at the same time he pours beer over the gang members, thus rescuing the innocent (if skeevy) older man. Cue Frankie looking a bit surprised, but admiringly, in the direction in which he disappears.

This mysterious hero is, of course, our very own Spader, playing Morgan Hiller, an intelligent, but troublesome high school senior, recently arrived from Connecticut. After Mr. Hiller’s business went under, the family moved to Los Angeles. Mrs. Hiller is still having trouble adjusting to her sudden drop in social class and lifestyle. Morgan’s deviant behavior isn’t making her any happier, either, and she lets him know it—every time they speak. And to top it off, Morgan’s appallingly yuppie, rising lawyer of a brother, Brian, is the family-dubbed “golden boy,” who can’t resist emphasizing the fact that he is the family favorite when he comes to visit.

Needless to say, Morgan is pretty sick of his family, and deliberately goes looking for trouble. Fortunately (?) for him, he doesn’t have to look very far: Nick is still pretty pissed about Morgan’s bike stunt; but he gets even angrier when Morgan pursues Nick’s “property”—Frankie. One ruined bike and two fantastic dance sequences later—‘80’s movies are famous for ‘em!—Morgan is hip-deep in trouble—and love. Even after enduring a brutal locker room beating at the hands of Nick and his gang, Morgan is undeterred. Rather than backing off, Morgan pays Frankie an unexpected visit, and insists they give it “a shot”. “You know,” says Frankie, “it’s not going to change anything.” To which Morgan responds, “It could. It could, and a chance is worth everything.”

(At which point I swooned. I also may or may not have played that sequence over again.)

Of course, I can’t tell you how the movie ends. I can’t tell you about the sensual love scene towards the end; and I certainly can’t tell you about the extremely well-done, if a little over-the-top, “final battle”. That would be cheating. You’re just going to have to see said scenes yourself.

I will, however, tell you a little about the actors’ performances. As you may have guessed, I am a big Spader fan, and it’s not just his looks (promise!). Even as a greenhorn actor with only a few movies under his belt, the young Spader was already forming his own style in this movie. He plays the role of the intelligent prodigal son very, very well. Though Spader’s lines are somewhat trite at times, he manages to make them sound interesting and important; and even though the funnier lines actually belong to his geeky sidekick Jimmy Parker, played by a very young Robert Downey, Jr., it is actually Spader’s lines that stick in your mind. Spader’s facial expressions are to die for, especially since they’re essentially the same ones he uses today. I personally did a little joy-wriggle in my seat when I saw him turn on what I like to call his “courtroom Boston Legal” face.
Though Richards does the pretty-girl-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks well, it is a little hard to believe her transformation from bad girl to relatively less bad girl. This is not a fault of her acting; it is more a fault of the character she is playing—basically white trash whose highest aspiration is to get married. Unfortunately, save for a brief exchange between Frankie and Morgan, the script never suggests Frankie changes her mind about what she wants out of life during the course of the film. Not to give anything away, but this leaves you wondering what happened to the “just get married” plan at the end of the movie.
None of the other actors’ performances are really worth remarking on, mostly because they are archetypal teen drama stereotypes. It’s not that their acting is bad by any means; it just isn’t noteworthy, since you could watch any other film in the same vein, and get the gist.

Tuff Turf combines the best aspects of ‘80’s teen drama without the dreck. No, it’s not Oscar material, but it’s damn good, and far more worth the watch than a relative equivalent, like Pretty in Pink. After all, Spader went somewhere.

(Sorry, Molly. You weren’t really that good an actress, anyway.)

Yours with love,

Film Bitch