It can be tuff for a preppie to make friends at school

WHAT IF Holden Caulfield turned into Charles Bronson? That piquant premise underlies the lively but confused teen exploitation film, Tuff Turf, which opens today in Toronto. Morgan Hiller (James Spader), is a blond streetwise preppie from Connecticut who arrives at a new tough Los Angeles school. Dad has lost his business and drives a cab for a living. Mom, an Ordinary People-type aristocratic cold fish, wears a permanent-press crease of disapproval in her forehead and wants Morgan to be more like his insufferably priggish law student brother. Way back in his tennis, yachting and country club background, Morgan has a vaguely-alluded-to troublesome past, so troublesome it is never explained - he probably sassed a badminton umpire in a particularly nasty way.

In the opening scene, Morgan, dressed in Bryan Adams' coat, jeans and sneakers, is bicycling through Los Angeles in the middle of the night, and he happens to ride right through the middle of a Chicano gang, The Tuffs, who are busy threatening a businessman with a switchblade. Morgan splashes Coke on a girl, spray-paints one of the gang and rides off down the freeway into the El Lay night. The gang collectively seethes - just wait until they get this guy in class the next day.

The depiction of a Los Angeles high school yard is certainly the highlight of the film. It manages to be a conscious update of the stylized backdrops of West Side Story, as well as a recognizably realistic look at L.A. teen life. The school could be called Sleaze High: girls are dressed as Sunset Strip hookers and boys wear Christopher Street bondage gear; the walls are splattered with spray-painted football cheers, and an earnest security guard, packing a pistol on his waist, warns students to walk their bicycles through the campus area.

While the street gang is busy dismantling Morgan's bicycle, Morgan falls in love with the street gang leader's girl friend, Frankie (Kim Richards), a girl who dresses like a heavy metal Valkyrie (until she falls in love with Morgan; then she wears a dress and changes her lipstick shade from maroon to light pink). The whole ugly business ends up in a blood and guts battle involving the preppie, numerous ethnic types, a couple of big dogs, hatchets, two-by-fours filled with spikes and some errant circus signs. This rumble takes place in a large abandoned warehouse, apparently unused since the making of Michael Jackson's Beat It video.

On the subject of videos, the soundtrack, which features the music of Marianne Faithfull, Jim Carroll and Lene Lovich, is very good, though generally too artistic for the film's essentially visceral attractions. Carroll, the lanky rock and roll android with no eyebrows, appears in a brief, funny cameo, and plays a druggy tune which inspires the student body of Sleaze High to explode in an inexplicable Fame-style danceathon. Watch for it coming soon to your favorite TV video program.

© LIAM LACEY, 01 February 1985, The Globe and Mail (Thank you, Susan!)