Believe it or not, there was a time when Christian Slater was considered the King of Cool. A sort of poor man’s Jack Nicholson crossed with a cartoonier James Dean. Slater blew onto the scene in 1988’s Heathers, a dark comedy about a sexy “heroic” outcast who tries to blow up a high school.
Yeah, try making that one today.
Then came a turn as the troubled Will Scarlett in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, aka the guy Kevin Costner shoots through the hand with an arrow.
Slater would solidify himself further in 1993’s True Romance, the Quentin Tarantino-penned romantic crime drama with one of the most hilarious monologues regarding world history ever delivered. Why couldn’t my high school teachers could have made learning that delightfully scintillating?
But before going on the run with 25-year old future Oscar winner Patricia Arquette, Slater would have to do penance with a sorta funny, half-baked, dimly-plotted crime comedy with 15-year old future Resident Evil fierce femme, Milla Jovovich.
I’m talking about 1992’s dumped-in-January release Kuffs.
A movie with the ultimate ’90s tagline: “When you have attitude who needs experience?”
To which I say, “When you’ve got Rotten Tomatoes, why watch Kuffs?”
This is a brief look back at one of the minor forgotten films of the crime comedy (“cromedy”) era that was big in the ’80s through the early ’90s, until about when Tarantino (and better taste) took over and evolved the sub-genre.
I remember Kuffs popping up once on either TBS Superstation, or USA, or some non-premium cable channel back in the late ’90s. Either on a Sunday afternoon or evening. It was an oddball change-up from the usual rotation of Leon: The Professional, that weekend’s godawful Steven Seagal film, Die Hard II, and Falling Down.
Kuffs must not have proven popular even in syndication, as I only remember it coming on once, and then the channels promptly returning to Michael Douglas machine-gunning a phone booth. For the longest time I wasn’t even sure it was actually real, and not something I’d mixed up with another film. All I remembered was a scene where Slater answers the door without a shirt on (with attitude).
Then a few weeks ago, for whatever reason, the title Kuffs came to my mind, and I had to investigate the Mystery of the Shirtless Slater. So, just like a hard-boiled detective cracking open a cold case, I did a rewatch.
So, what the hell is Kuffs all about?
George Kuffs is an unemployed high school dropout loser living in San Francisco who, of course, has a hot girlfriend whom he’s just knocked up. Terrified of taking responsibility for a family, he bails on the poor college girl, leaving a hastily-scribbled note about how she’s better off without him. He high-tails it to his older brother, 30-year old Brad, a respected officer in the Patrol Special Police, and begs for a loan so he can flee to Brazil.
The San Francisco Patrol Special Police is a unique privatized neighborhood security force that is not an offical part of the city police. Officers are given charters, or territories, and provide security to their residents for a rate.
After failing to secure a loan, George finds his brother gunned down brutally inside a church by a wackily-dressed hitman. Then, to make matters worse, he watches the killer walk free, in perhaps one of the most brain-dead plot points I’ve ever seen in a film. A city prosecutor (I think, it’s never made clear) explains that because Kuffs didn’t actually see the guy pull the trigger, the suspect can’t be held. This is despite Kuffs running into the church and seeing the guy standing there literally holding the gun over Brad’s body, and then the thug actually dropping the gun on the floor. I guess fingerprints, ballistics, and the fact that Kuffs sees the guys face doesn’t matter? I know it’s San Fransico, but come on, man.
Anyway, after grieving for all of two seconds over his dead brother, Kuffs finds out he’s inherited Brad’s district, and decides to straighten up his life, become a private cop, and get justice for his brother’s murder. But he soon finds out the hit on his sibling was just part of a deeper conspiracy that involves an evil businessman and $50 million in stolen art.
When it comes to these mid-’80s to early ’90s crime comedies, there are tiers. On the high end, you’ve got your fan-favorite mega-grossers like Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, and even Die Hard, if you count it as a comedy. Just below that, you’ve got your quality dark comedies like Miami Blues and Falling Down. Then you’ve got the experimental cool dude flicks like Desperado and True Romance.
Kuffs sits in the medicore middle, with other forgotten cromedies. It’s not in bad company. It’s got flicks like Bill Murray’s Quick Change and Robin Williams’ Cadillac Man hanging out with it. It’s quite a precipitous drop below, where we find appallingly outrageous anti-classics like Samurai Cop and Hard Ticket to Hawaii. The latter of heavy doobie-smoking skateboard assassin fame.
Kuffs by itself is not really nostalgic for me. I only saw it once, and was left mostly unimpressed, even as a credulous teen who, at the time thought Steven Seagal was the bomb. But the spirit of the cromedy genre, and the time period from which it hails, is endearing. Back then you could get away with a ridiculous premise. All you needed was a rascally underdog protagonist, stick in a bad Hans Gruber Xerox for your villain, mix in some snarky atittude, and there you go.
It was a simpler time. Before the internet. Before audiences got savvier and actually expected better, or at least bigger. Nowadays, you’d likely only see something like Kuffs dropped on a streaming service late at night like an abandoned firehouse baby. Though the sub-genre has had its big-budget ressurgences, like 2010’s The Other Guys, the 21 Jump Street reboot, and Kevin Hart’s Ride Along.
So, what does Kuffs have going for it?
Not so much its humor, which mostly sputters. It’s largely off-putting and tonally jarring. It struggles to be edgy and irreverent, but becomes undone by over the top silliness. There’s a sleeping pill sequence that belongs in a 2000s gross-out comedy. Late in the story there’s a drug-sniffing dog joke that looks like it would have been right at home in Beethoven. And for some reason uncooked turkey becomes a recurring gag. The attempts to be clever and self-aware generally come off more as cringy and juvenile. It might have worked as a dark comedy. But it’s like the writer and director just decided to hell with it, and went with every bizarre and weird impulse, resulting in a brash and stiched-together final product. Which is odd considering both of them were Oscar nominees from previous ventures.
It has one somewhat clever scene. Kuffs and his real cop handler bicker in the car, and their swear words are bleeped out. This was done supposedly to poke fun at the PG-13 rating, which only affords a single utterance of the F-word. Though the meta mockery seems misplaced, random, and unearned.
Then there’s Kuffs’ Ferris Bueller-esque fourth wall breaking throughout the film, which I actually didn’t mind that much. Slater is no Woody Allen, à la Annie Hall, but his smarmy charisma works for the sub-genre. It reminded me a lot of Deadpool, actually. I guess every decade is entitled to its own smart ass who talks directly to the camera.
Lastly, I’d be remiss not to talk about a little icky something. That wasn’t a typo up top. Milla Jovovich, the college-aged love interest, really was 15 during principal photography, while Slater was either 21 or 22. And the movie has several passionate make-out scenes. Yes, a full grown man sucks face with a minor in a mainstream studio film. Kind of hard to believe what movie studios got away with back then, and what audiences either didn’t know about, or maybe didn’t care about. Imagine pulling that with the Moral Outrage Twitter Brigade today.
Overall, I designate Kuffs as a quintessential ’90s cringe cromedy. Worth a watch to get that unique crime comedy flavor.