The Toughest Man In The World

Director: Dick Lowry
Mr. T, Dennis Dugan, John P. Navin Jr.

As I think I once mentioned before in a previous review, being a Hollywood celebrity can seem to be the dream life at first glance. You are probably in a role that lets you make a lot more money than your average Joe six-pack, and you probably have the respect and admiration from many people in the public. But as I think I also mentioned, there are some potential problems being a Hollywood celebrity. Among other potential problems is the lack of privacy, and the fact that you are only as good as your last production - meaning that there is a lot of careful decision-making you have to do. One careful thing people struggling for celebrity status have to consider that I don't think I've talked about before is figuring what tone your public persona will be. For the most part, there are two avenues to choose from. The first, and the one that most people seeking celebrity status seek, is to come across as pretty serious about things. Take John Wayne, for instance. He chose for the most part to come across as one serious dude in front of the public, and it paid off handsomely for the most part. But there can be pitfalls being so serious all of the time. If you are constantly so humorless, it can be a turn-off to the public who may conclude that you don't like to relax and have a little fun once in a while. But there are potential pitfalls taking the other route in your quest for celebrity, being constantly silly. If you are constantly silly all of the time, that too can turn off audiences. I once read an interesting quote by David Hodo, one of the original members of the musical group The Village People. He said, "You can only go on for so long being a joke" - which may in part explain why his group eventually lost its mass popularity.

Sometimes various celebrities manage to exactly balance doing both serious things and things that are lighter in nature. The late actor Robin Williams through his career went back and forth between doing comedies and doing movies that were more serious - and he did pretty well at it, if you ask me. But I have noticed that most celebrities that decide to go down that group eventually find themselves with damaged careers. Look at Hulk Hogan, for instance. When I was growing up and witnessing his growing career, I was sometimes quite perplexed by his wavering back and forth from being a tough wrestler to someone who did goofy things. I didn't know what to make of him, and that might explain why today his career has hit the skids. Then there is the case of Laurence Tureaud, better known to most people as Mr. T. I was not quite a teenage when he started to become famous in the early 1980s (yeah, now you have a good guess as to my age), and even then I was quite perplexed by the seemingly schizophrenic personality of this guy. On one hand, he had some attributes that were to be admired - he had worked his way up honestly from starting life poor and living in gang territory, he was deeply religious while not shoving his faith down people's throats, and he took his position as a role model to kids seriously. On the other hand, just take a look at the guy. He sports a Mohawk, and until recent years wore a ton of gold jewellery everywhere he went. And even today he is so outspoken and seemingly without any humble side that he quickly becomes a figure of parody.

This may in part explain that after the success of his TV show The A-Team, he has had a lot of problems finding some role that even comes close to that earlier success. For example, Mr. T had to find work on a low budget Canadian TV series (T And T) right after The A-Team The Toughest Man In The Worldended. And in recent years, he has been downgraded further by appearing on the reality show I Pity The Tool, an even lower budgeted exercise. A lot of this seems to be because Mr. T seems unwilling to change his persona - maybe he's too proud to admit that in ways he's become a joke. But I wonder if Mr. T looks in the mirror every day and asks himself, "How did I get to this point?", while thinking of his glory days. It can't be denied that how he acts now did give him a big fan following decades earlier. So I thought it would be interesting to look at one of the projects he made when his popularity was at its peak, the made for TV movie The Toughest Man In The World. The events of the movie are set in Chicago. Mr. T plays a fellow by the name of Bruise Brubaker, who makes a living teaching Greek philosophy at the local university. Just kidding. Brubaker has two jobs - at night he works as a bouncer in a nightclub, and during the day he helps run a local youth center for underprivileged children. Brubaker is determined that the children do not fall into a life of crime, especially one child named Billy (John P. Navin Jr., National Lampoon's Vacation). But as Brubaker is struggling to steer Billy and the rest of the kids down the right path, a severe case of bad luck rears its head. Funding for the youth center has been cut, and the youth center is in danger of being closed. Brubaker tries through normal and expected channels to get funding, but fails. But Brubaker eventually sees some hope. A contest called "The Toughest Man In The World" is being held, and the grand prize consists of enough money that Brubaker could use to keep the youth center open. Brubaker signs up for the contest, but doesn't seem to know that not only does the contest itself hold some big challenges, but there are also outside forces that threaten to stop his chances of winning the contest.

While The Toughest Man In The World wasn't Mr. T's first movie, it was the first movie where he played the definite lead role. Before watching the movie, I wondered why Mr. T picked this particular project to be his first movie where he was up and center - he had to have been offered other projects, certainly some that would have been theatrical releases. Maybe the do-gooder part of Bruise Brubaker appealed to the part of him that considered himself a role model to kids. When I actually watched the movie, it didn't take me long to wonder if the other projects he was offered were somehow worse than this. The Toughest Man In The World was certainly doomed from the start, but Mr. T didn't exactly give the movie any favors. I could go on for some time critiquing his performance in the movie by stating such facts as that it seems very forced when his character has to either smile or laugh, or that he lumbers around awkwardly in scene after scene instead of giving the impression that he feels relaxed or even confident in this particular environment. But I think the biggest problem with Mr. T's performance is the tone that he gives his character. It is certainly one-note, and that's a problem by itself. But it's made worse by the fact that this particular tone always suggests that his character is extremely angry. Even when his character tries to show a soft side - encouraging kids at the youth center, or trying to strike up a relationship with a woman named Leslie (Lynne Moody, The Evil) - Mr. T's tone makes Bruise Brubaker gruff at best, and downright hostile at his worst. While this particular limited acting range might have all the same been adequate for a villainous role (like in Rocky III), it's all wrong for a character we're supposed to like and root for.

While Mr. T's amateurish acting does occasionally provoke a few unintended chuckles here and there, for the most part viewers will find his character pretty dull. Not just because of his poor performance, but also for the way that his character is written - or should I say underwritten. The character of Bruise Brubaker was given very little color by the writers. We eventually learn that Brubaker was on his own by the time he reached the age of ten, and that he fought in the Vietnam War despite the fact that he didn't know how to read or write. And that is about all we learn about this guy. We don't really learn what motivates him to do the things he does. Even when he's with other people, we don't get a sense of this guy apart from the fact that he keeps calling the woman he romances "ma'am" instead of her actual name. As it turns out, the other characters in The Toughest Man In The World are equally flat and colorless. Brubaker's boss (Dennis Dugan, Happy Gilmore) is friendly with and supports Brubaker, but we never get a sense as to why, mainly because he has a limited amount of screen time. The character of juvenile delinquent Billy is given more focus, but what we do learn from him seems right out of the many clichéd scripts before and after this movie concerning troubled youths. Brubaker's love interest Leslie never shows why her character is attracted to the man. As for the bad guys in the movie, consisting of a competitor in the contest (Tom Milanovich, Rookie Of The Year) and a low level mobster (Joe Greco, The Package), there is nothing about these antagonists that you haven't seen before in many other movies and television shows.

The bad writing in The Toughest Man In The World doesn't just extend to the characters, but with the story itself. The story is extensively padded out, for one thing. We have to wait until more than half of the movie is over before it gets to the tough man contest. And believe it or not, we don't get to see too much of this contest. Even more incredible is that the climax of the movie doesn't take place at the contest, but at a different location. What we do get to see of the contest suggests that most of the limited budget of the movie was blow to hire hundreds of extras playing spectators at the contest. The other parts of the movie have a really cheap look and feel, like what you would find with early movies from PM Entertainment such as Chance. Maybe this low budget, combined with the limited talents of the headline star, were what seemed to have defeated director Dick Lowry (Smokey And The Bandit Part 3) even before filming started. Not a lot of thought was put into some details, like the fact that the youth center only seems to cater to boys instead of having some female patrons, or that Brubaker can sometimes withstand punches and sometimes can't. The biggest problem with Lowry's direction, however, is how sluggish and energy-free the entire enterprise feels. Nobody from the actors to director Lowry himself seems to be having any fun with this movie. Apart from a few unintended laughs here and there (like when you hear Mr. T perform a rap song over the opening credits), viewers will also not be having any fun. In the end, the movie is best reserved for tough man contests like the one in the movie itself - any viewer will get quite a test of their endurance.

(Posted March 30, 2021)

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See also: Aladdin, Pepper And His Wacky Taxi, Secret Agent Club