"Tuff Turf" is a youthsploitation movie that has fun with its formula, and for that, two cheers. But director Fritz Kiersch's twists promise more than they deliver -- it's just more grist for the run-of-the-mill.
When his father (the ineffably pained, rabbitlike Matt Clark) loses his business and moves the family to Los Angeles, Morgan (James Spader) finds himself on the wrong side of the tracks. Prankishly foiling a mugging attempt by a gang of hoods called the Tuffs, he earns the enmity of the chief punk, Nick (Paul Mones). When he falls in love with Nick's girlfriend, Frankie (Kim Richards), things really heat up.
Morgan struts around school with dark wraparound sunglasses and a copy of "On the Road"; kicked out of a string of prep schools, he styles himself a rebel, but he's only posturing. At its best, "Tuff Turf" touches the peculiarly intense way in which teen-agers dramatize themselves, and the way their conflicts, rooted in these poses, sound so hollow.
The usual class bias of these movies is flipped here. The hero is the rich kid, so when Morgan takes advantage of his heritage in seducing Frankie, the movie suggests larger themes than you'd ordinarily expect in such grade-B fare. When he dances Frankie's breath away, it's the result of all those dancing lessons; he sings her a love song at the piano, and you all but see the piano teacher. All this might have been a source of sympathy for Nick, who, growing up without these advantages, has adopted a roughhouse (ruffhouse?) style that can't compete with Morgan's suavity. Unfortunately, Nick is painted as such a caricature that everything that's interesting about "Tuff Turf" is lost. And their ultimate confrontation has nothing to do with class -- as they whale away at each other with knives, guns, nail-studded two-by-fours, axes, guard dogs and, of course, fists. "Tuff Turf" drowns in its own cliche's.
Spader plays Morgan adequately as a clenched-jawed, self-indulged preppie -- although he's the hero, he's never very likable. At times, Mones evokes the fake, affected toughness of a young punk who's watched too many gangster pictures. "Tuff Turf" includes riveting cameos by rock stars Jim Carroll and Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. The real find of the movie, though, is Robert Downey as Jimmy, a kid who befriends Morgan. With his big, wet eyes and greasy pompadour, Downey looks like a young Lou Reed; sprinkling silent guffaws and winks in asides to the audience, he builds a performance of real charm on his jovial self-effacement.
Kiersch tries to give the movie a visual style, but he's all over the place -- "Tuff Turf" flails wildly from lyrical soft-focus to expressionistic angles to pixilated, quick-cutting MTV mannerisms. Worse than this smorgasboredom is Kiersch's ineptitude with the action sequences he has yoked to the center of the movie. Which is a shame, because glimmering through "Tuff Turf" is something more than teen angst for the umpteenth time.
Tuff Turf, at area theaters, is rated R and contains violence, nudity and sexual situations.