Tuesday 30 May 2023

Tough Enough (1983)

Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: John Leone
Stars: Dennis Quaid, Carlene Watkins, Stan Shaw, Pam Grier and Warren Oates

Index: The First Thirty.

I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy this quite so much. Sure, it’s a Pam Grier film, but she’s hardly in it, despite her fourth billing. It’s also a Dennis Quaid film and a Warren Oates film, a bizarre pairing I’m very happy to see. Wilfred Brimley and Bruce McGill help too, as does the director being Richard Fleischer.

Those are all plus points but the genre isn’t. If there’s anything I’m less likely to enjoy than a sports movie, it’s a romcom and this film is a sports romcom. If that wasn’t enough, it’s also a sports romcom about a country and western singer. In 1983. Well past the Every Which Way But Loose sell-by date.

Both the blurb and the torso on the poster opposite belong to Dennis Quaid’s character, Art Long, who is certainly not having the best time of it as the movie begins. He has a good crowd at the Pickin’ Parlour, where he sings country and plays guitar, but he also follows a wet T-shirt competition, so that crowd doesn’t want Art Long. One table starts to throw stuff at him, so he clambers off stage mid-song and punches all three of them out.

That actually plays out in his favour because his wife is fed up with him not making money with his music and that prompts him to enter a toughman competition, hence the title, for a potential $5,000 prize. And that competition is run by the same folk who were offering prizes for the wet T-shirt competition. They saw him throw those punches and they were impressed enough to want him on their roster. Suddenly, he’s the Country Western Warrior.

The man behind the Toughman Contest is James Neese, perfectly played by one of the all time great character actors, Warren Oates. He owns the show, runs the show, MC’s the show, you name it. Bruce McGill plays his assistant, Tony Falton, and there are three ring girls to sex the show up, but that’s about it. Beyond them, it’s all about thirty-two local nobodies slugging it out in a, well, knockout tourny over two nights until there’s only one left to take home the money.

And I do mean nobodies. Obviously this isn’t a competition for professionals but they frown on amateurs too, those who might have had a dab of actual training. A few do make it in, like P. T. Coolidge, who hits it off with Art and sits in his corner to give him advice. Mostly, it’s a collection of big guys who think they’re tough. Most of them find out quickly that there are a lot tougher men than they are.

And this first night of preliminaries is funny in ways that provide much of the com in this romcom. Amidst the wildly ambitious swings, one fighter trips over before he does anything; another’s almost blind but wins his first bout with a single punch and then knocks out the ref in his second; while a third quits before he can get hit.

It’s no spoiler to point out that Art wins the $5,000 because we knew that going in. What’s the point of having the finals halfway through the movie if he doesn’t go on to the nationals in Detroit, where he’ll get a shot at $100,000? So, of course, he wins. Duh.

What we don’t necessarily expect is how he does it, especially given that his opponent was always going to be a massive Albanian, Tigran Baldasarian, played by a professional wrestler, Steve “Monk” Miller.

For one, Art has the punches but none of the finesse, so he needs all the help he can get from Coolidge. For another, he’s legitimately tough, someone who can dish out damage but also take it, as he does, in abundance. He goes down a few times and, boy, is he going to feel it in the morning!

And for a third, James Neese likes him and his gimmick, so actively plans for him to win. While these are not rigged fights, in the sense we might expect, Neese is very happy to make an inappropriate judge’s decision to ensure his choice goes through, even if they clearly lost. Coolidge loses one fight like this and Art wins a couple of them.

You might be wondering where Pam Grier is in this testosterone-infused film which spends far more time in the ring than boxing movies tend to. It’s mostly been fights, with a setup to show us how unhappy Art’s wife Caroline is at his failure to make money as a musician.

Well, we saw her briefly early in the film, at the Pickin’ Parlour, because P. T. Coolidge was next in line to perform after Art in the talent show, which is one reason why they connect backstage at the Toughman Contest, and Myra is P. T.’s girlfriend. She gets a few moments on occasion to brighten up the very male scenery a little but has nothing much to do until what might well be the best moment in the film.

Now, this is hardly a critical moment in the grand scheme of things, just like all the other potential picks for best moment, but they are welcome nonetheless.

There’s one with Art Long singing his son to sleep, but choosing The Congo Mambo, with an array of animal noises that serve only to wake him up all the more. There’s another, with Art and Caroline on a talk show, along with a few other fighters at the nationals and their better halves, including “Gay Bob and a close friend.”

But this one is about P. T. and Myra, so Stan Shaw and Pam Grier. The Fort Worth show is done and Art’s going to the nationals and he’s bright enough to know that he’ll need help, so he asks Coolidge to come along. P. T. and Myra stay in his van overnight, not wanting to be a pair of third wheels while he breaks the news to Caroline, but he hasn’t told her by the time she goes shopping in the morning, so she gets into the driver’s seat and has quite the shock when Myra sits up in the back with fangs on display to scare the crap out of Art.

It’s a great scene and it’s a great icebreaker, but it really needed to be in the movie because otherwise we’d forget that she was ever cast. She may have slightly more screen time than she did in Fort Apache, the Bronx but it isn’t by much and she has far less opportunity. Thank the stars for those plastic fangs!

All in all, this is a much better movie than I expected it to be. It’s Quaid’s film with Oates stealing much of it out from under him, but it needed the reality infusion of a few characters who aren’t fighters and that’s where Carlene Watkins and Pam Grier come in, as a wife and a girlfriend to feel their men’s pain by proxy without ever getting punched.

But that’s about it.

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