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‘Tougher Than Leather’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 17, 1988

Run-DMC's "Tougher Than Leather" is vile, vicious, despicable, stupid, sexist, racist and horrendously made. Call it rap-ploitation, but since it's a pure product of Russell Simmons' Rush/Def Jam rap empire, that's just another word for business as usual. Sometimes there's no difference between in-house and outhouse.

Where to start? That problem proved insurmountable to the filmmakers. The plot must have been scripted on a napkin over lunch at a fast-food restaurant: D gets out of jail (what he was in for, we never learn, except it was violent and he's unrepentant), rejoins Run and turntable wiz Jam Master Jay on the rap circuit, and they all go on a grueling tour with a dimwitted but pure-hearted homeboy as a roadie.

Meanwhile, their evil white booking agent loses control of his drug laundering front in the black community. After the booking agent kills a rip-off drug runner and the roadie, it's made to appear to be a rap-drug incident. Yo, the boys know it's not so, and they set out to clear their pal's name, and the name of rap.

Maybe they should have just skipped this movie, which makes "Good to Go" look like "Gone With the Wind." It's a conceit to think that those energies central to a homemade, streetwise music could make a smooth transition to the big screen, but this is ridiculous and nasty, to boot. All the women are "bitches" (one of the prominent songs is Slick Rick's "Treat Her Like a Prostitute"). All the white men are punching bags or lead repositories. Maybe it helps to know that the screenplay is by white director Rick Rubin, who's also Run-DMC's record producer and Russell Simmons' right-hand conspirator; that Run is Simmons' little brother Joseph; that the Beastie Boys are a part of the Def Jam empire; and that all these folks seem to think any excess or extreme is fine in the pursuit of dirty dollars.

Blacks, Jews, women, gays -- they're all fodder for this gang. Are crass exploitation and ugly race- and gender-baiting excusable because the perpetrators are often themselves victims? No, particularly when it's done as gracelessly as it's done here.

Rap is just a subtext here (though we also get a glimmer of Washington's Junkyard Band, which is also on Def Jam Records), and that's too bad, because several of the Run-DMC performances ("Mary, Mary," "Run's House") manage to convey the visceral energy of the music. But "Tougher Than Leather" is not a music film, just another urban gangster-western, early Sergio Leone gone awry. Rubin, who also "plays" the evil booking agent, is merely the worst actor in a cast defined by ineptitude, and while he shows absolutely no talent as a director, he's got the mean-spiritedness down to a science.

Anyone thinking that Run-DMC might offer a celluloid alternative to the Fat Boys' Three Stooges imitation is in for a shock. "Tougher Than Leather" could have been an opportunity to say something about hip-hop culture, about the environment that bred it, about the energies that fuel it. Instead it's just the crassest exploitation. Had the film been made by professionals but with the same script, it would have been bad enough, but this crew sinks to the occasion at every level. Save your money and wait for it to come out on video. Then skip it again.

"Tougher Than Leather" contains much stupid violence, some nudity, and dollops of disdain for humanity.

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