There is something to be said for knowing exactly what you’re in for. Even when it’s a low-budget made-for-TV movie. Even when you know there’s no hope of it truly being a good film. But when you have a movie from 1984, and it stars Mr. T, and it’s titled The Toughest Man in the World, you know right away what you’re getting.
Not that I’m disparaging the acting skills of Mr. T. Far from it. I may disparage the writing of the film, but not Mr. T’s acting. It’s apparent from the very title what kind of character Mr. T will be playing, and it’s a type he plays very well, and very often. Mr. T plays Bruise Brubaker, and Bruise is, of course, a rough and tough bouncer by night and a gruff but warm-hearted inner city youth counselor by day. It’s essentially type-casting, spawned with no small amount of inspiration from his 1983 cartoon series, but just as that has fans, so too does this have some cheesy appeal.
In deference to the wishes of those who watched the cartoon, director Dick Lowry included a scene in which Mr. T beats up some kids.
There’s really little point in giving Mr. T’s character the name “Bruise Brubaker”. For all intents and purposes, he’s Mr. T. He wears his hair like Mr. T, he dresses like Mr. T. He talks with the same speech patterns Mr. T uses in every day speech, and speaks on the same subjects. He cares about people and doing the right thing, but is always gruff and grumbling about it even as he tries to be kind. He’s a gentle man with kids, but relishes the chance to knock some heads around when the opportunity arises. There’s some lip-service to the idea of this being a distinct character, with a past that involves the streets of the city and the jungles of Vietnam, and a struggle with illiteracy, but none of this is treated as anything more than window dressing. Mr. T’s role in the movie is to simply go and do his thing, and the viewer’s enjoyment is going to be directly proportional to how much they enjoy watching Mr. T do his thing.
And personally, I think on some level we all pity the fool who doesn’t enjoy watching Mr. T do his thing.
The movie has the usual assortment of cliches. There’s the street rat who is taken in by Bruise and who gradually learns to trust others and be trustworthy. Billy (John P. Navin Jr.) has a bit more on the ball than a lot of kids of the type, but he’s still more than enough on the “annoying pest” side of things to want to slap him upside the head for most of the show. There are Bruise’s adult friends, from his employers (Dennis Dugan and Peggy Pope) to his semi-romantic interest — the show never devotes much real time to it — who runs the school where his youth center is situated. She’s played by Lynne Moody, and is the basic “nice person” cipher that populates uninteresting romance subplots. And there is, of course, a threat to the youth center, in the form of a lack of funding. And a solution in form of the prize money for the Toughest Man in the World competition.
The plot isn’t just simple, it’s by the numbers. The competition is mentioned early on, in what may have been an attempt to be casual about it, but it’s clear from that very second how most of the story will go. The writers try throw a small wrinkle into it with Matty the illegal bookie (Joe Greco) trying to fix things, but even the plot threads spawned from that are predictable to even the slowest mind. No, the fun of this isn’t in the plot, it’s in Mr. T charging around breaking things. Even the other actors are all largely superfluous; they are there to occupy space and deliver lines, but most of them don’t have real roles, let alone characters, and as a result their dialogue is often stilted and unnatural. I was surprised to find that nearly all of the other actors actually had extensive acting careers prior to The Toughest Man in the World, even the kid who played Billy. They just delivered such flat performances I thought for sure they would all be one-movie wonders. But I guess it must just have been the script. The one actor who was both in a prominent role and genuinely new to acting was Tom Milanovich, who played Tanker Weams, the current three-time champion of the Toughest Man in the World competition. He would later go on to have bit parts in a few other films, including as the state trooper in Groundhog Day.
The reduced dialogue of the role is a step up.
If you’re looking for good acting, look elsewhere; the only actor to seem comfortable in his role is Mr. T himself. If you’re looking for a good plot, you won’t find it here. It’s as basic and bare-bones as it gets. If you’re looking for emotional depth, the closest you’ll find is the vague references to Bruise’s past and Billy’s mother being a prostitute (though she is never called such by name, and similar to the dancers at the nightclub, nothing overt is ever shown.) If you’re looking for good direction, well, it’s not bad in truth, but it benefits largely from the low budget leading them to actually film in a run-down neighborhood. (If they had the budget for a studio set for the neighborhood, I doubt the props department would have had the foresight to vandalize the stop signs, for example.)
If, on the other hand, you’re looking to have some fun watching Mr. T wreck things and people, and to laugh at the lunacy of it all, then The Toughest Man in the World isn’t such a bad film. If you’re looking for cheesy, goofy fun with cartoon-level violence, it’s pretty enjoyable. It’s all in what you’re looking for.