Tougher Than Leather

Director: Rick Rubin              
Run DMC, The Beastie Boys, Slick Rick, Richard Edson

I've never been into rap, so I didn't bother watching Tougher Than Leather (starring the rap group Run DMC) until recently, despite the cover of the video box promising it to be a kind of blaxploitation movie. When Mike from Dante's Inferno arranged with me to send it to him, I finally had an excuse to watch it once and for all. The verdict? I don't think it's a good film, or enough of a guilty pleasure, though I will admit that occasionally it does have some interesting stuff in it - though this little stuff can generally be labeled as unintended entertainment, if you know what I mean. Besides having a few amusing moments, the movie is also interesting as a period piece; though little more than a decade old, Tougher Than Leather is already quite dated in some of its aspects, particularly the music. It's very interesting to see how mainstream rap has changed from when the movie was first released. Though I know little about Run DMC, I somehow get the feeling their style of rap was becoming obsolete even before the movie was released to theaters.

The movie gets off to a promising start for trash movie fans, with an opening that has many aspects that strongly echo the opening of another movie, The Blues Brothers. "D" is being released from prison, and in the background we hear the non-stop rant of another prisoner complaining about the time his girlfriend was using his TV to watch Dynasty, and he threw the TV set out of the window. (We never find out what crime D did to put him in prison, by the way.) Outside the gates of the prison, D's bandmates are leaning on their car, waiting for him. Driving away, one of the band members, for no reason at all, starts telling his friends about a reoccurring dream he's been having: "She was sucking, sucking, sucking hard and hard. I'm like, 'Yeah!' And then you know what she do? She bite my d**k off. Same f**ked-up dream for weeks." Pause. "F**ked up," comments one of his friends. "Yeah," answers the dreamer.

Most viewers will expect some kind of plot to creep in around this point of the movie. Instead, the movie takes a long break from any story development in order to give Run DMC an excuse to rap; so after a short bathroom scene with some other characters (where the background music is so loud, you can't hear any dialogue), we suddenly see Run DMC performing on a stage, with no real explanation as to where they are, or how they got there. If you watch this movie, take a close look at this scene. Though we hear a large crowd cheering the group as they perform, we only see the audience two or three times during this concert performance. And when we do see the audience, we quickly find out why there's hardly a shot of them; though the director has tried to darken the audience with the lighting, we can still see that there are hardly any people in the audience, and there are a lot of empty seats behind the few audience members. Later concert footage is shot in the same fashion. Strangely, when The Beastie Boys subsequently take the stage, (and further pad the movie), there are more shots of the audience, and we see more people in the audience.

This is one cheap movie, and this cheapness is the main contributor to the unintended entertainment value here. After the endless Beastie Boys number, Run DMC subsequently signs on with a Dom DeLuise-like record producer, who has the typical record producer office, a room with brick walls (covered with peeling paint) that's barely bigger than a walk-in closet. When the boys go on tour (ensuring more padding), their tour is consisted of stock footage of trains and planes, just like a movie from the golden age of cinema. A newswoman later seen on TV is shot dead center onscreen (instead of to the side), with a plain blue background. Some of the music for the dramatic scenes sounds like it was lifted from a movie made in the 1950s. The crude look of the movie even reaches the editing. In one scene, we see a car with the boys reflected on the side of the car door, leaning against a wall. We see the reflection of one of the boys walking towards the car. We then cut to a shot of the boys still leaning against the wall. After a short pause, one of them starts stepping towards the car, and then the movie cuts to where the first shot ended, and continues. And if you think that's bad, this same sort of editing error happens again just a few seconds later.

After a lot of the movie has gone by, some sort of plot then starts. The boys had hired a slow but lovable dullard to assist with their tour, and he is soon murdered when he stumbles into a drug deal involving members of the record company. As is expected, they plot to kill the men (who are white, of course) behind the killing of their friend. Though what's not expected is that their investigation and revenge plans are executed in such a slow manner. Tougher Than Leather only has about thirty minutes of plot, so you can imagine how the movie plays out when it's stretched to 90 minutes. The movie is relentlessly padded, with scenes that serve no purpose to the story. There's a block party, where people just wander around, with one of the songs of the soundtrack playing in the background. A lengthy scene at a restaurant with the record producer dining with Run DMC and The Beastie Boys seems to have been made to show the comic talents of the Beastie Boys. (They ask a waiter if he's got crabs. "Yes." "Then get away!") Later on, as the heroes try to solve their friend's murder, their investigation takes them to a redneck bar. They don't get any information, but it gives them the excuse to beat up the rednecks when one puts out his cigar in their beer, and afterwards they smash up their bar before leaving. Some of this padding does provide some unintended laughs, both in the writing and the technical aspects, but most viewers will be bored by the sheer inactivity, and will vocally instruct the movie to get the hell on with it.

What about the acting talents of the trio? Though they look and dress appropriately for a music video of the era, for some reason they visually seem out of place here, even for a movie of this nature. They do still show some onscreen presence, but this compensation doesn't make up the fact they can't act. Sometimes when they enunciate their dialogue, you can't understand what they are saying. It doesn't help that their dialogue is terribly written. I think they say "man" more times than Dennis Hopper did in The Glory Stompers. With their terrible (and limited) dialogue, and lackluster performances, they all seem alike - I couldn't tell who was who of the trio. It says a lot that The Beastie Boys, who only have about three short scenes in this movie, show more acting talent and charm than Run DMC generates in the entire movie.

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)
Check for availability of soundtrack album (CD)

See also: The Black Godfather, Hot Boyz, Out Of Sync