In the 1980s, things were simpler. There were pretty much three kinds of movies: movies for adults, movies for families and movies for teens. Movies for teens were often released by John Hughes, the undisputed king of the 1980s teen movie. John Hughes films were films you could watch with your parents, normally with at worst a 15 certificate.
Tuff Turf is not a John Hughes film. It is a direct-to-video teen film. This means there’s violence and nudity, thereby earning the film an 18 rating and making it all the more attractive to its core teen audience. And, in the 1980s, it wasn’t exactly difficult to find any number of unscrupulous retailers who would rent I Spit Your Grave to a 10-year-old, as long as they had the cash.
Morgan Hiller (Spader) and his previously well-to-do family are going through a bit of a rough patch. Their father has lost all his money and is reduced to working as a cabbie. They’ve left leafy suburbia for the gritty inner city. This suits Morgan fine, as he’s been turfed out of every private school within a reasonable distance. Okay, so most of his fellow students are suspicious of the rich boy slumming in their neighbourhood. But he quickly makes friends with party animal Downey Jr (surely typecasting?) and spies Frankie (Richards), the best looking girl at school. Of course, Frankie already has a boyfriend (Mones) and he’s the leader of the Tuffs, a local gang. He’s also at least 15 years too old to be in school, but they’re all too old to be in school.
You can join the dots from here on in. There’s conflict between Morgan and the Tuffs, which results in beatings to Morgan, his father and Frankie. The star-crossed lovers have to overcome not only social prejudice at school, but also at home, as Morgan’s mother disapproves of her boy consorting with the lower orders.
But for all the formulaic nonsense, there’s a lot to commend this film, not least of which is an excellent soundtrack from Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, as well as Marianne Faithfull. It’s always fun to see a young Downey Jr acting up and there’s some nicely observed characterisation in places, especially Matt Clarke as Morgan’s father and Kim Richards as Frankie.
Music is such a key part of the film, and some of the scenes within the school are so reminiscent of Grease and other 1950s-set musicals, that you almost expect the gangs to break into a dance number at some points.
Films like Tuff Turf are a guilty pleasure for those of us who grew up in the eighties, but a pleasure none the less. And it still makes for a mindless but reasonably enjoyable night’s viewing.