Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Blaxploitation Operation: Johnny Tough

It is a real shame that the directorial debut from Horace Jackson, 1974’s Johnny Tough, isn’t a better film. A shame because the idea behind it, to remake Francois Truffaut’s monumental masterpiece The 400 Blows as an inner city African American drama, is a fascinating and compelling one. Even though the film is a disappointment and a heavily flawed feature it is still an interesting one and is deserving of a look if you can track the film down.

Jackson only directed two features in his career, with the other being 1977’s Joey (a.k.a. Deliver Us From Evil), and he is probably best know as the screenwriter of the fascinating The Bus Is Coming (1971)…a film I will be focusing on soon.
Jackson’s film career started in the mid sixties with Living Between Two Worlds (1963), a film he wrote, produced and even acted in. Johnny Tough shows him as an ambitious talent but unfortunately an experienced cast and budgetary problems damage the film nearly beyond repair and today it is mostly just a valuable curiosity more than anything else.
Johnny Tough is indeed an almost straight remake of Truffaut’s legendary first Antoine Doinel film with young Dion Gossett (seen here in his only big screen appearance) as the troubled title character. Gossett is actually quite good in the film and, truth be told, he is more convincing than most of the adult actors that surround him.

The rest of the cast is almost entirely made up of actors with no film experience and it shows as almost everyone struggles with Jackson’s ambitious screenplay. Character actor Renny Roker is the only one featured of the major players who has more than a handful of credits on his resume and it is no surprise that he gives one of the better performances in the film. The rest of the cast, put simply, fail to sell the material at nearly every turn and the film has a hard time making up for this.
The film is also visually flat and resembles a TV movie more than a big screen feature, although admittedly the faded full frame print I saw makes it hard to definitively judge the photography of Pets cinematographer Mark Rasmussen. Even in this print though it is clear that Johnny Tough lacks the urban finesse that typified the best of this period. It is a bland looking picture about an exciting subject and it simply never visually pops.

The score, by acclaimed Detroit musician Dennis Coffey, is also a bit of a let down as it suffers from a lot of needless repetition, which is more than likely due to the limited budget and short shooting schedule.
Despite all of the major problems the film has, it is still hard not to admire what Jackson was attempting here. The film has balls and I must admit by the closing scene (which does a fascinating turn on Truffaut’s famed closing still of Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Doinel) I was more than a little moved…even though my emotion was due more to the fact of what was behind the film rather than what was actually on the screen.

Johnny Tough was released in theaters in 1974 and failed to connect with audiences or critics. It floated around for awhile (sometimes under the title of just Tough) and reappeared in 1977 on a Drive In Bill as a companion piece to Jackson’s Joey. It can be found on a public domain, transferred from VHS, DVD usually for around a dollar around the country.

Johnny Tough is a well meaning little film that has too many flaws to give a real recommendation to. Still, warts and all, fans of African American cinema in the seventies and admirers of Truffaut’s film in general shouldn’t miss it.


michael a. gonzales said...

i saw this flick as a kid, but have met very few others who have seen it. never knew it was a remake of "the 400 blows" though; thanks for the great post.

geewhy said...

First, let me say how great your blog is. I posted something on my blog about this movie -- which has great sentimental value for me -- on my blog about Flint, Michigan called Flint Expatriates. I was so happy to see your post on it. I borrowed some of the photos, by the way, with full credit back to you. Here's my reflection on Johnny Tough:

The first, last and only time I ever saw a movie at the Capitol Theater was sometime in the mid-seventies when my mom and I saw Johnny Tough! together. The tagline: "He's bad...he's black...he's beautiful...He'll steal your heart!" It was summer; downtown was empty; and there were only a handful of people in attendance. I remember the theater manager actually standing in the lobby wringing his hands and sweating. He knew he'd be out of a job soon.

Johnny Tough! was a wildly ambitious low-budget attempt to make a blaxploitation version Francois Truffaut’s masterpiece The 400 Blows. It didn't quite work, but you have to admire first-time director Horace Jackson's lofty aspirations.

My mom's attempt to help me experience the Capitol of her youth, where she often spent entire Saturdays and watched hundreds of films, was probably even more ambitious...and impossible to achieve.

sanonymous said...

Was the kid a prodigy, doing college-level math in elementary school?

I saw this movie for sale at a budget grocery store, just as you remarked, under the name "Tough" and in dvd format, for just one dollar.

The illustration on the case shows Dion's face surrounded by images of (presumably) the other characters, as well as images, including a chalkboard, (presumably) representing themes in the movie.

I noticed the writing on the chalkboard appeared to be fairly advanced mathematics, specifically operator algebra in bra-ket notation (suggesting quantum mechanics/atomic, molecular, and optical physics.) Does that have any connection with the movie?

Thank you for your post, it explained a great deal about the movie and the context, but I'm very curious about the packaging (was the designer playing a joke?) so if you have any info or speculation you could share I'd like to read it.

Anonymous said...

You are so nice to share these with us.

tystep67 said...

Saw this movie as a kid in Chicago as Johnny tough. Loved it and I don't know of anyone else who saw it