Flop This Way Case File 97: Tougher Than Leather
As a child I was lucky enough to have Run-DMC, specifically a well-worn VHS tape of Run-DMC’s greatest video hits, be my introduction to Hip Hop. I was instantly hooked. Run-DMC was like The Beatles: as a kid, you didn’t need to be told that they were great and popular, and the best at what they did: you could feel it for yourself the first time you listened. The appeal was universal and instantaneous.
For a few years in the 1980s, Run DMC were the biggest and the best when it came to Hip Hop. They weren’t just superstars whose image and sound helped define an entire era: they were global ambassadors for an entire art form. When you’re that big, that early, there’s nowhere to go but down, unfortunately.
Sure enough, the legendary trio’s star-killing 1988 vehicle Tougher Than Leather finds the trio of D.M.C., Reverend Run and Jam Master Jay in the midst of a profound identity crisis. At the behest of legendary early hip hop pioneer and taste-maker Rick Rubin, they traded in the family-friendly image that made them Hip Hop’s biggest mainstream crossover act for a sordid new persona as blaxploitation supermen whose fists are as powerful as their devastating rhymes.
When I interviewed Rick Rubin a long time ago, he gave Tougher Than Leather credit for anticipating the wave of socially conscious black films of the late 1980s like Boyz in the Hood, Juice and Menace II Society but he was really making a shitty Blaxploitation movie fifteen years too late. Rubin’s film wasn’t ahead of the times: he was behind the times, and his Blaxploitation/art-film/rapsploitation hybrid proved singularly unpalatable, particularly to its target audience of Run-DMC fans.
Tougher Than Leather is the worst kind of vehicle. It made me hate something that I have historically loved in Run-DMC. The idea was to make a movie for fans. Instead, they made a movie that pushed their audience away.
Run-DMC was important to me as a kid. They remain important to me as an adult, and neither the kid in me, nor the adult in me, cared for this revisionist take on one of the greatest acts in popular music as glowering sadists who manage to squeeze the occasional rap performance in between threesomes with gangster molls and lovingly breaking the fingers of henchmen with sadistic relish.
This feels like a hopelessly ersatz, off-brand version of Run-DMC. It’s as if Russell Simmons lost the rights to his brother’s group in a poker match to Cannon kingpin Menahem Golan, who decided that they were violent assholes who solved mysteries, punched and shot people and had group sex when they weren’t doing that crazy rap fad. All that’s missing are bazookas and gratuitous break-dancing sequences, and honestly, those would both make the movie substantially better.
Tougher Than Leather takes everything you love about Golden Era Hip Hop and corrupts it. Love Slick Rick? Then enjoy having that affection tested by his performance of “Treat Her Like A Prostitute”, a misogynistic ditty whose message the filmmakers seem to have taken to heart. Other than an arbitrary love interest played by Jenny Lumet, the only female character here is a white gangster’s moll we’re told is a total nymphomaniac who will take on all comers, sometimes two or more at a time, to get back at her repugnant husband.
This isn’t a supporting character: this is Letters to Penthouse in human form. There’s only one way exposition like that is going to pay off so it’s not at all surprising that soon 2/3rds of the iconic hip hop duo are having sex with this bleached blonde sexual adventurer. And because this is Tougher Than Leather, the heroes of countless kids like my 12 year old self are soon shoving a gun in the face of the scandalous woman they just tag-teamed sexually.
Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves, as we haven’t even gotten to the plot yet. The movie opens with Jam Master Jay and Run picking up D.M.C. from a nine month prison sentence in an opening sequence that recalls the beginning of The Blues Brothers re-imagined as a moody art film. The first five minutes of Tougher Than Leather consist primarily of D.M.C. walking down prison hallways, something Rubin, who co-wrote and directed, in additional to co-starring in, inexplicably finds so fascinating that he devoted a whole lot of the movie’s 80 minute run-time to it.
Then the men pile into a car and Jam Master Jay tells his recently freed friend and collaborator about these dreams he’s been having where a girl with “one of them big, fly, stupid asses” is performing oral sex on him before she bites off his cock. Motherfucker, your friend just got out of jail after nine months! Buy him a steak and a cocktail. Take him to a movie. Don’t subject him to your weird sex nightmares. He doesn’t need that shit. No one does.
Run-DMC’s manager Russell Simmons—played by Russell Simmons—gets Run-DMC and his other group, a trio of Jewish knuckleheads named the Beastie Boys, signed to a Hip Hop label run by Vic Ferrante (Rick Rubin, dropping a whole lot of N bombs that make you wonder if he was working through some dark emotions through his performance here), who is the son of a mobster so terrifying we are told he “makes Capone look like a faggot.”
Vic only signs Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys as a way of laundering drug money for the mob and when one of Run-DMC’s buddies gets murdered by Vic in what the authorities see as a crack deal gone wrong, Run-DMC sets off in search of their buddy’s killer, a quest that pulls them into a shadowy underworld of mobsters, drug dealers and murderers.
Tougher Than Leather can’t even seem to figure out what kind of bad movie it wants to be. There are moments throughout when Rubin seems to be aiming for the funky arthouse grit of New York independent cinema in the Spike Lee She's Gotta Have It era. Richard Edson, a fixture of East Coast independent film of the time, has a supporting role but rather than elevate the material, he sinks to its level.
For reasons known only to Rubin, Tougher Than Leather very briefly becomes a vehicle for the vaudevillian comedy stylings of Adam Horowitz, AKA Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys when he hits on a sexy receptionist played by Jenny Lumet (Sidney’s daughter and later the screenwriter of Rachel Getting Married) with lines seemingly purloined from a Dating Game re-run.
“How would you like to go out with a handsome, sexy, charming hunk tonight?” Adam Horowitz asks the visibly unimpressed young woman, looking and acting for all the world like a latter day Bowery Boy without the exquisite subtlety and comic timing.
“Why? You got a friend?” she sasses back insouciantly. Undeterred, Horowitz asks indignantly, “How could you turn down dinner and dancing with me?” Dinner and dancing? Is Horowitz a 1940s square asking a bobby-soxer to go to the big dance with him or a rapper in the 1980s trying to get laid?”
One of Tougher Than Leather’s many confused identities is as The Beastie Boys Rappin’ n’ Laffin’ Hip Hop Comedy Fun Hour. I don’t know what’s sadder: that Adam Horowitz, in the prime of his radiant youth, decided that his cinematic persona was going to be “Hip Hop Eddie Deezen” or that he doesn’t have the comic chops to pull something like that off.
The Beastie Boys are the kind of goofballs who ask a waiter, “Do you have crabs?” and when he responds affirmatively, thinking, understandably, that since they’re in a restaurant and he’s a waiter, that they're referring to the seafood delicacy. You can only imagine his surprise when his response is met with an aggressive, “Then get the fuck out of here before you give them to me!"
The Beastie Boys are just about the only white people here throwing around food rather than racial epithets (these nutty nuts just can’t resist a good food fight, don’t you know?) but even they’re defined by their race.
When paying for a “business” lunch that mostly ended up on the floor, a white sleaze bag observes in shock of the dynamic between the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC, “You wouldn’t believe it! The white ones were worse!” Then the Beastie Boys disappear from the film for forty minutes, only to pop up for twenty more seconds in the third act, dressed up like Orthodox Jews.
Russell Simmons favors a more direct approach with the ladies. “What’s up, baby? How you feel? Let’s say we break out of here and do the wild thing?” he coos at one beautiful young woman. She isn’t feeling it, so he uses a similarly direct approach with the next attractive woman he encounters, literally seconds later, and when she’s like, “Eh, I guess so” Simmons is so overjoyed that he breaks the fourth wall and winks at the camera.
He winks! A character in Tougher Than Leather is so excited to be getting laid that he purposefully shatters the reality of the film so he can gloat. I’m not sure whether that’s so incredibly stupid I should try to purge it from my memory or so insanely awesome I should make a Gif of it and watch it on a loop until I die. It’s the height of Tougher Than Leather’s audacity, but it’s also the only time the movie’s audacity is entertaining rather than depressing.
Rubin’s ugly, curdled and just plain unpleasant directorial debut is particularly audacious in throwing around racial epithets at a clip rarely seen or heard outside Klan rallies or Alt-Right conferences but there’s a huge difference between acknowledging or dramatizing racism and wallowing in it. Tougher Than Leather wallows in racism. It luxuriates in racism. Cheap racism is the cheap fuel it runs on.
Race is ever-present in Tougher Than Leather, but never in a real, authentic, challenging way. This is not Do the Right Thing: this is the wrong thing. Rick Rubin has no interest in exploring racism. He’s just interested in it for shock, for effect, as something to get the audience’s attention in between the gratuitous violence and the gratuitous sex.
Call me Pollyannaish, but I would like to imagine that even in 1980s New York, there was at least one exchange between African-Americans and Caucasians not defined by poisonous racism and tension.
Tougher Than Leather is so obsessed with racism that contemporary slurs aren’t good enough for it and it goes for hatred more abstract, even lyrical in nature. For example, when Run-DMC are playing gumshoe investigating their buddy’s murder, a white bartender tells Jam Master Jay, “It’s obvious to me that you and I aren’t reading from the same hymn book!”
I’m not exactly sure why the film felt the need to tip-toe around racism and racial differences when it otherwise contains dialogue like “I’m gonna pop this nigger, and then me and my boys are going to run a train on this bitch” that's pretty unsubtle in its implications. As a child who loved watching Run-DMC perform “Christmas in Hollis” every Holiday season and chuckled when they goofed around with the likes of Larry “Bud” Melman and Penn & Teller in their iconic music videos, I did not need to see Run-DMC in this ugly new context.
Tougher Than Leather is in some ways the Head of rap movies. The Monkees wanted to destroy their kid-friendly, manufactured image so they could be their debauched, funky, bohemian hipster selves. Head accomplished that goal so spectacularly that it left the Monkees with nowhere to go as a prefabricated pop machine.
Tougher Than Leather similarly takes a blow-torch to Run-DMC’s family-friendly image but instead of revealing who Run-DMC really was, it offered eighty minutes of tough-guy posturing not even remotely redeemed by occasional musical performances that make Tougher Than Leather feel alternately like the world’s longest music video or a music video collection duct-taped together with a ramshackle plot.
The crazy thing is that Tougher Than Leather wasn’t made by a clueless outsider who didn’t understand hip hop. In Rubin, it was made by a clueless insider who didn’t understand film or storytelling to the extent that he made a movie set in the hip hop world, if not necessarily about hip hop, that feels egregiously fake and inauthentic even as it’s populated by many of the leading lights of the era, both in front of, and behind the camera.
I don’t care what hymn book you’re reading from: Tougher Than Leather is a fucking nightmare, an ugly desecration of something special that deserves to be half-forgotten as just another egregious mistake from musical greats with not-so-great judgment when it came to material and collaborators.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure
Join the Nathan Rabin's Happy Place community and get neat bonuses like patron-exclusive content over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace