Movie Review: Tuff Turf (1985)

So I just finished watching this movie called Tuff Turf and I have a bold yet exciting premonition to announce: keep your eyes on this James Spader kid, because I have the feeling he's going to be huge! I'm telling you, this blonde dreamboat has got the Hollywood "it" factor and he's gonna be a bona fide star and the thinking women's sex symbol. Just remember that you heard it here first on Go Retro! You're welcome.

OK, so Tuff Turf was released in 1985, nearly 30 years ago. And as everyone knows, James Spader did gain notoriety and now has a myriad of admirable film, stage and television roles under his belt (most notably on NBC's The Blacklist.) But it's interesting to note that it wasn't Tuff Turf that got him noticed (even though it was his first starring role in a film) but Pretty in Pink, which came out in a year later. I confess that up until recently, I had never heard of the movie Tuff Turf and I certainly do not remember seeing any publicity for it in the 1980s. Despite that, for a forgotten teen exploitation film it seems to have a cult following--with many fans considering it to be one of the best films of the 80s era. I would have to disagree--much of it is awful by today's standards--but I will say if you're looking for a film that looks the part of the 80s in regards to big hair, fashion, and background music (and not always in a good way) then this one certainly nails it. 
Things I learned from watching this movie: James Spader actually has a tattoo of a spade on his shoulder (a tattoo done the right way, like this, is hot.)
Given my passion for actors I've deemed sexy, it should come as no surprise that Spader was my main motivation for watching this movie (OK, I'll admit it--if he weren't in this, I'm not sure I could have reached the end of the film.) Had the movie been better written and more successful, it most likely would have made him a teen mag cover darling with his image wallpapered across every locker room at every junior high in the country (including mine) after this movie was released. He's positively dreamy in it--a white high top sneaker-wearing rebel with a cause (and lush blonde locks that beg for my fingers to run through them) who has dance moves that are more than passable. He even "sings" in the movie, too, if you can forget for a few minutes that he's really lip synching to another performer's voice. 
Her forehead band drives me nuts in this movie
Spader plays Morgan Hiller, a (formerly) rich kid whose family has moved from Connecticut to Los Angeles after his father's business fails. The night before the first day of school, Morgan is riding his bike through his skanky urban dwelling new neighborhood when a gang of teenage thugs attempt to mug a businessman waiting for the bus. Morgan foils the assault by spraying a can of soda in the perpetrators' faces as he rides by. The next day at school, he immediately gets called to the principle's office for riding his bike on the school grounds (what?) and is noticed by the group of hoodlums and their main moll, Frankie (played by Kim Richards, with crimped hair nearly as long as Crystal Gayle's and a wardrobe that any hooker would admire) who want revenge. Deep down, however, Frankie seems to be mirroring my thoughts while she carefully eyes Morgan: who is that mysterious stone cold fox and how can I get into his pants? 
Proof that Robert Downey Jr. loves ESPRIT clothing
In one of his classes, Morgan is befriended by Jimmy, played by Robert Downey Jr. I didn't even realize it was Robert Downey Jr. until the scene when Jimmy gives Morgan his switchblade to protect himself from the bullies. Outside at recess, Morgan discovers the school gang has confiscated his bike and are racing their cars in circle around it in the school's driveway. Whadya know, school officials aren't around and no one does a darn thing about it. Can someone explain why this is allowed, yet Morgan was reprimanded for simply riding his bicycle in the same area?

The thugs eventually run over Morgan's bicycle (which flies through the air in that overly done, classic slow motion sequence.) Morgan's parents are furious when they discover him trying to repair his mangled bike, as if it was his fault. Dejected, Morgan leaves his house to go watch Jimmy's band play at a local warehouse. (Downey is the drummer and a sight to see, wearing nothing but a bowtie and pants that look like they came from a sex shop.)

At the dance, Morgan grabs Frankie and starts twirling her around on the floor (this is one of the most enjoyable sequences in the movie) much to her protests and the chagrin of her gang, who eventually chase him off and threaten him outside the warehouse. They also steal his Porsche and take it for a joyride. Oh, it really isn't Morgan's Porsche--he just drove it to the dance because he spotted the keys just dangling there in the ignition when no one would bite at his hitchhiking attempts. Who leaves the keys in their unlocked Porsche in a skanky neighborhood? No one with a brain, but apparently this plot detail was necessary, because it conveniently lands the head thug Nick (who is Frankie's boyfriend) in the pokey. 

With Nick out of the way for the time being, Morgan soon gets his chance to woo Frankie when he and Jimmy pick her and her friend up while cruising around the neighborhood. The quartet end up at a Beverly Hills country club (Morgan's idea) and crash a private party  there for some free food. This was my favorite part of the movie, because I saw Spader slip suddenly into his future Raymond Reddington character from The Blacklist (fellow Blacklisters will know what I'm talking about), turning on the charm to canoodle his way into the party and schmooze with the guests. When the band takes a break, Morgan takes the stage and serenades Frankie with a lame ballad that sounds like it was whipped up on a whim for the film, something called "I Walk the Night":

What follows this scene may be one of the most ridiculous dance sequences ever conceived, even by 80s' movie standards. Morgan and Frankie go to what is obviously an adult bar/club (how two underage teens would be granted access to this place is beyond me.) At this point, Jimmy and Frankie's girlfriend have disappeared. A Tower of Power-like band credited as Jack Mack and the Heart Attack starts to play, and Frankie starts dancing seductively on every square foot of the place--twirling, bending, strutting and even cartwheeling across tables, the bar, and the go-go dancer's poles--her long, crimped hair flowing closely behind. This goes on for what seems like an eternity, finally culminating in Morgan and Frankie's first passionate kiss. 

Despite now having feelings for Morgan, Frankie for some unknown reason continues to see Nick (who has now, we assume, been released from jail without explanation.) Shortly afterwards, Nick asks Frankie's father for her hand in marriage--and Frankie doesn't protest. Despite all this, Frankie accepts Morgan's invitation to dinner to meet his parents...which ends with Frankie acting like a rude child and storming out of the house after Morgan's mother makes a comment about Frankie's mother, not realizing she is dead.

The last half hour of the movie reminded me of the old saying about stepping in s*it and smelling like it, as Morgan's involvement with Frankie leads to his father landing in the hospital. As to be expected, there's a huge showdown between Morgan and the thugs in the warehouse, and Jimmy appears with a pair of Dobermans to help save the day. The ending credits are the icing on the cake and not to be missed. They come at us from left field and feature another performance by Jack Mack and his band, singing "T! U! F! F! You're so TUFF!" No, really. 
T! U! F! F! You're so TUFF!
The dialogue in this movie is poorly written, and there are lots of pauses which seem like they were meant to fill the voids where the screenwriter couldn't think of anything to say. Another huge problem with this movie is its identity crisis. The film tries to be too many things at it a drama, action, teen romance, dance, or comedy movie? It is not even close to a John Hughes movie, although at times it tries to be. Spader's character seems to ramble all over the place, too...he's a leather jacket wearing rebel, a sweater sporting preppy boy, and a sentimental romantic rolled into one. Ultimately, he is someone who will stop at nothing to prove his love for Frankie. He is also the best thing about this movie, owning every scene he's in, and I couldn't stop drooling looking at him. Downey also does a commendable job as Morgan's sidekick, providing comic relief. Downey and Spader teamed up again in 1987 in Less Than Zero and are going to reunite again in The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Despite its flaws, Tuff Turf is still worth viewing if you want to see Spader and Downey looking like kids very early in their careers, or if you need a dose of 1980s' cheesiness. As for me, I was left with a serious craving to watch Pretty in Pink again, to see all the elements of a teen movie done right. 
Note to self: this is the perfect photo for Photoshopping my head over Kim's...


  1. You're preaching to the choir, Pam, because I have been a James Spader fan for decades and recently featured him in one of my own posts:

    Invariably Spader plays a rich, smug, spoiled, arrogant jerk but I have compassion for his characters because he infuses them with sadness and insecurity.

    Like you I never heard of Tuff Turf until now. It must not have been promoted very well when it was released in the mid 80s. I enjoy Spader's acting so much I don't care how bad this movie is. I will add it to my watch list. Thanks for the review, Pam!

  2. I'm back, Pam, and I just finished watching Tuff Turf. I enjoyed it much more than expected. It was not your typical high school musical. It had a dark side, intense violence and even some brief frontal nudity supplied by Kim Richards' body double. I didn't mind the movie meandering from teenage fluff to classic film noir and back again. It was all good and I bought into the movie without reservation. Tuff Turf was as good as any of the genre pictures I've seen including Pretty in Pink. In fact, I liked Tuff Turf more simply because it was brand new to me. I loved the music, especially the funky, brassy horn band, Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. The film obviously had a substantial budget and the production was slick and professional. James Spader owned every scene, showing early signs of acting brilliance. Kim Richards also impressed me. She looked familiar to me and when I checked her list of acting credits I was astonished by the number of TV and movie roles she's had since early childhood. I've seen Kim many times over the years and clearly she is no lightweight.

    Thank you for turning me on to this lost gem of a movie, Pam!

  3. Hi Shady - thanks for your comments and I enjoyed hearing your perspective of the movie. I do agree that JS owned every scene and I loved the part where he crashed the country club party because that was clearly a glimpse into Raymond Reddington. The dialogue and lack of common sense in regards to some of the characters' actions left me shaking my head. The director's other notable claim to fame is Children of the Corn and low budget films I've never heard of. I will not deny that the movie is VERY 80s--a time capsule into the era for sure! Well, I'm glad you enjoyed it and that my review persuaded you to view it.

  4. Pam, like many 80's movies if you didn't see it at the time it came out you just won't get it. The movie is hopelessly cheesy, of course, but back then it was cool.
    I was lucky enough to see it back in the day and I remember the movie fondly and your article has made want to revisit it. Shady Del Knight's comment about Spader is EXACTLY right: "Invariably Spader plays a rich, smug, spoiled, arrogant jerk..." A role he would revisit many times but always infusing it with charm. The same can be said for Robert Downey Jr who played the role of the weirdo best friend in many an 80's flick.
    You failed to mention that the blond actress (Kim Richards) is none other than the little girl in Escape/Return to Witch Mountain.

    1. You beat me to it, Luis. I really think you had to see this movie back in its heyday to really have the love for it that I do. While there's nothing in this article that isn't true, I think the feeling it brings back to watching it on HBO around 1986 or so, drooling all over James Spader and trying to figure out whether some of those outfits came from Chess King or The Body Shop just adds charm you won't get if you're trying to view it now. I'm trying to introduce my bestie to some of these 80's cult films she never saw back then (her parents had no TV, and I apparently had no life because I saw them all a hundred times back then), and I've been debating whether to bother with this one for the reasons already mentioned. I mean Jeebus, how do you explain "I Walk the Night" to ANYONE? (And there's debate about whether that's Spader singing or not. I doubt he'll ever tell.) Unless you're reliving how you felt when you first saw it in the 80's, I'm not sure it's tolerable for everyone. I rewatched twice this past weekend, and I'm ready for another round.

      Interestingly, I did some internet research on Sunday and discovered, lo and behold, that the burger joint where Frankie smashes the burger into Ronnie's face is a mere seven blocks from my house. I hightailed it up there, not expecting to find it, but there it was. It's not a burger joint anymore but a used car lot; however, the door of the place is still the same as you see in the film (I have comparison photos I've posted on my Facebook page) as well as the Silver Saddle Motel next door (which I suspect is a "by the hour" joint these days, although it may have been back then as well). The BURGERS sign is still there to my shock, which you see in a panning shot just before the scene with the three girls. I don't think anyone has had the heart to tear it down. Fun fact is this building was also used as the Pig Burgers establishment from Better Off Dead and was also seen in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. I can't say I didn't have chills taking the photos, thinking about James Spader zooming up in that Camaro and me jumping in to head to Beverly Hills. Ahhhh I miss the 80's.....

    2. P.S. - I want to photoshop my face on that picture as well. LOL I had hair almost that long in the 80's with a spiral perm heavy enough to sink a battleship....

  5. He brings vulnerability to so many of his characters, even the ones that could be perceived as jerks or bad guys. I don't think Spader is playing an arrogant jerk in this particular movie, however. I was 13 when this came out, so perhaps if I had seen it at that age I would have thought it was cool. But compared to the John Hughes collection or even films like Adventures in Babysitting, personally I don't think it comes close. He is, however, the best thing about this movie. And yes, I did know that Kim Richards is from the Escape from Witch Mountain movies.


Powered by Blogger.