How a Single Mr. T Movie Defined a Decade
It's been a hard decade for non-suckas. The only thing you could find Mr. T in was I Pity The Fool, a reality show featuring a combination of opposites so extreme it should have exploded the universe. The first episode opens with an old and desperately tired-looking Mr. T jogging past a street corner, and would have been less embarrassing if he'd just stopped there and started turning tricks. Instead he continues into a dealership and begins pitying some Grade-A Fool, in this case a group of well-dressed, increasingly confused car salesmen.
Mr. T: Pitying their nervous whispering and lack of a red track suit.
The whole thing is enough to make you forget about the peak of the 80s, when Mr. T was at his most ridiculously awesome. Also enough to make you forget about those heady times: Both the decade and Mr. T reached their apex in a movie nobody's ever seen. It is called The Toughest Man in the World, and it's what they will put in museums when trying to explain the baffling decade in which it was released. And they will succeed.
The film is a crystal of 80s perfection so dense and fluorescent, that you can only look directly at it while wearing stupid looking sunglasses.
The cover features Mr. T teaching us how to say, "Sucka" in sign language. The black and white shots are how you say, "We're trying to cash in on Rocky III by lying" in cover design.
This movie was released direct-to-TV in 1984, and remains one of the few movies for which that was not shameful. Back then, kids actually watched TV and they did it for exactly two reasons: Transformers, which could turn into tanks, and Mr. T, who didn't have to.
Inexplicable Job, Awesome Name
There are two traits your main character had to have in order to get your movie released during the Reagan Administration: An impossibly awesome name and a career that doesn't exist anywhere outside of 80s movies.
The Toughest Man in the World doesn't disappoint on this front, as Mr. T plays (and this paragraph is the only time I or anyone watching the movie will call him this) "Bruise Brubaker," who runs a community center by day, and works as a bouncer by night at what is either the world's first Lutheran strip club or downtown Chicago's premier Sequin Appreciation Club.
You'll notice the woman at the bar is technically stripping twice as much as the one on stage.
80s Version of Urban Squalor
We first meet Mr. T in an opening scene that contains more concentrated 80s than lime Kool-Aid: a street with white break dancers, a ghetto blaster and a concerned tough guy running a community center program. That tough guy is Mr. T, and when we first find him, he is rapping about being tough.
There's something surreal about watching Mr. T rap. Most "celebrity rap" consists of "talking angrily while famous." Since T knows no other way to talk, it just comes off as "talking." It was a few stanzas into the rap that the 80s radiation (obviously measured in RADs) destroyed my DVD drive as the disc spontaneously expanded into a VHS tape. Fortunately, it kept playing because it believed in itself.
Mr. T spends his down time cruising the railroad tracks looking for disadvantaged children while thanking god pedophilia hasn't been invented yet. This is where he finds Dick, a pudgy, white pork chop who turns out to be the casting director's choice for street urchin. This means they either filmed it inside Judge Dredd's wallsafe or they think fries are a controlled substance.
Dick and his two henchman. Before you ask, we can tell you that it's a little too on the nose for a penis nickname.
The kid who plays Dick gives off the unmistakable stink of acting school with his line delivery, and an even less mistakable scent of ballerina school with his knife lunges.
Avant-Garde Use of 80s Cliches
You may recognize the plot of the film as the most stereotypical plot of an 80s film possible: Mr. T's youth program needs $20,000 dollars to stay in business despite consisting entirely of an unpaid Mr. T shouting "YEAH!" at an abandoned basketball court. Either the kids are burning through 78 basketballs a day, or this is the first heartwarming movie about embezzlement.
But one of the unexpectedly brilliant ways the film engenders appreciation for its decade of cinema is by unintentionally mocking of every other plot of the decade. It frequently sets the table for a perfectly predictable 80s movie cliches, and then pulls the rug out from under us. For instance:
They trust the criminal with money during the fundraiser and he actually rips people off.
Mr. T's amazing physical strength helps him punch through the layers (and wooden doors) of bureaucracy and it gets him arrested.
The kids have made it to the basketball championships and they don't win.
The kids don't lose to rich cheats and swear revenge, they don't even get to play, because Mr. T's still in jail for tearing chunks out of the Mayor's office.
Standard Use of 80s Cliches
However, the filmmakers deliver the predictable 80s gold of one liners and heart warming messages when it matters. For instance:
"I'm sick of being social, it's time to get some service!"-Actual Line
T simply rams his head off every problem and, like any 80s movie, even this dumbest-of-all-possible-abilities will be his salvation at a critical moment. The big emotional reveal is that he's illiterate--the best explanation for having a single-letter name yet--and it casts the scene where Dick finds him doing the center's accounts in a terrifying new light.
T just likes to look at all the little squiggles.
He'd been there all night. If Dennis hadn't turned up and revealed his secret street-smart super-skill of "high school math," T was probably moments away from screaming and headbutting the entire desk into fragments. An established wood-smashing skill which will later be a major turning point for the whole movie.
Whether it's the All Valley Karate Championship or a child custody bestowing Vegas arm wrestling competition, the only thing faker than the names and careers are the organized competitions that control the universe in 80s movies.
The Toughest Man in the World inevitably ends with Mr. T entering the Toughest Man in the World competition: an insane combination of weight-lifting, a montage, a fun-house style assault course and a boxing match against the previous champion. Unfortunately, the crooked current Toughest Man in the World clearly suffers from advanced selfishness--in kid's movie land, that's worse for your chances of winning than muscular dystrophy--and we all know that a mortal punching T's chin is just pressing the big red "Please Notice and Flatten Me Now" button hidden under his beard.
Knowing they had to come up with a believable enemy for Clubber Lang, the writers make T's nemesis climbing a rope.
Telling Mr. T to be bad at physical exertion is like telling Tila Tequila to act classy at a kid's benefit concert; they'll suck no matter how important you explain it is not to, and as they're clutching that length in front an army of children you realize your career as a casting director are over.
T's several attempts at acting are simulated spinal failure and scowling harder than normal, if nothing else, proving that his facial muscles can withstand stresses which would pulp a regular human skull.
Wildly Unnecessary Romantic Subplot
There's also a romantic subplot, featuring one of the most amazingly asexual performances by a leading man this side of Kevin Spacey. He approaches her like a confused five-year-old, brandishing a bunch of flowers like they're a Magic Sword +1 Against Cooties. At the other end of the sexual spectrum the movie wins the Secret Academy Award for PG-13 Yo Mama Jokes and Logical Impossibility: Mr. T visits Dennis's home and without benefit of swearing, nudity, slang or even mentioning the concepts of money or sex he makes it clear Dennis's mom is a whore. If this filmmaker was allowed to swear he could overthrow the government. And their moms.
In Earth-T Chicago people never even say the word "drug," let alone deal them, but the Mafia boss brandishes a syringe and says it's a little "special something" which will make Mr. T lose the fight. That's brilliant: Imprinting an entire generation of kids with the idea that syringes could make Mr. T lose a fight? You couldn't brainwash them better if cocaine killed Bambi's mother!
Baffling Final Showdown(s)
At this point, the raw 80s RADiation becomes so intense it starts conjuring physical objects out of thin air and suppressing our world's laws of physics and child-endangerment: the Mafia warehouse features several fully-laden dining tables for no other reason than to have thugs thrown through them, several gangsters and the previous Toughest Man in the World are beaten up by a school bus full of disadvantaged children, and the police response is "What, you ram-raided a known Mafia hideout with a school bus full of orphans? Sure we'll let you go! Gedouddaheah, and make sure you're hugging that kid instead of the love interest!"
But the real showdown was 15 minutes earlier, when Mr. T faced off against Baron Von Lengthofrope. Warning: if you were born after 1989 this incredible movie climax may project you into temporal nonexistence:
The pivotal battle is between Mr. T's face and a panel of chipboard. The highlight is where he's surprised to see the wall, clearly suppressing the traumatic memories of training for this exact situation several times, and jumps back like the rope just pulled a knife. And in the perfect apex of Eighttitude he suddenly employs his special skill of remembering he's the only thing in the world made of Mr. T, believes in himself and runs through the wall.
And that's the 80s-ist lesson of all: No matter how stupid your skill, even if it's just "break wooden things," use it in the second half of the movie to win!
You can read more Luke McKinney, and find out what happens when you drink amazingly bad beer for breakfast. Or watch him make a Bacontini.
For more 80s insanity, check out The 10 Most Terrifyingly Inspirational 80s Songs and 8 Important Lessons Learned from 80s Cartoons. Or find out Which 80s Version of Awesome Are You?.