Video Rewind tells the stories behind forgotten VHS favorites from the video store era, one rental at a time! This month’s movie is 1992’s “Kuffs”.
The city of San Francisco took an interesting approach to law enforcement in 1851. Unable to afford enough policemen to adequately protect its population, the city chose to divide into different districts, with these districts then being sold to private citizens. Merchants and businesses could pay these district owners, known as Patrol Specials, for their service of protection. This practice continues in the city to this day.
And in 1992, script writers Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon found a way to incorporate this unique law enforcement technique into a movie: an action-comedy with Hollywood’s hottest young star, Christian Slater.
Kuffs would be the directorial debut of Bruce A. Evans, who, to date, has directed only one other feature since, 2007’s solid crime-thriller Mr. Brooks starring Kevin Costner. Evans did have a couple of strong writing credits to his name at the time Kuffs was announced. Along with his writing partner Raynold Gideon, Evans wrote John Carpenter’s Starman in 1984, and the coming of age classic Stand by Me in 1985.
Evans and Gideon wrote the script for Kuffs (originally titled Gun For Hire), and it was Evans’ 17 year old daughter who suggested the young lead character have an attitude.
This suggestion ended up playing a major role in the story and character of George Kuffs (“When You Have Attitude Who Needs Experience?” reads the film’s tag line). Evans, Gideon, and producer Dino de Laurentiis were sold on Slater after seeing him in Pump Up the Volume and knew he’d be perfect for the role in Kuffs. The filmmakers waited several months for the busy star to complete work on 3 prior films just to get him.
Kuffs opens with a leggy, underwear wearing Milla Jovovich dancing with a shirtless Christian Slater, when she suddenly drops the news that she’s pregnant. Although playing the pregnant, college age girlfriend to Slater’s George Kuffs, Jovovich was only 15 when filming on Kuffs took place (Gwyneth Paltrow, Sandra Bullock, and Ashley Judd also auditioned for the role).
Jovovich signed her first modeling contract at the age of 12, and the Ukrainian beauty caught Hollywood’s attention in Return to the Blue Lagoon, despite the film being a box office bomb. Her big break came in 1997 starring opposite Bruce Willis as the orange-haired Leeloo in the sci-fi-action bonanza The Fifth Element (multi-pass!).
Jovovich’s future seemed undeniably as bright as her beauty, and by the end of the decade she was one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood.
Perhaps Jovovich’s beauty was so bright that Christian Slater had to wear shades while dancing with her in that opening scene.
Always channeling Jack Nicholson with his shades, slicked back hair, wide grin and arched eyebrows (all on prominent display in the film’s poster), Slater looks to the camera to tell the audience that there’s no way he can take care of a baby. After all, him and Maya have only been together for 6 months and, besides, “I have women to do, places to see,” George says directly to the camera, adding, “she’s better off without me.”
(Keep an eye out for Ashley Judd in the following scene in her feature film debut. The filmmakers liked her audition so much that they added a small role for her as a paint store employee, a role that earned her a Screen Actors Guild card).
George decides to tell Maya his intentions to leave her and the baby in a note (a dick move, but why ruin a moment like Jovovich dancing in her underwear?). But after having dinner with his brother Brad, a Patrol Special district owner, on his birthday (and hitting Brad up for money), George thinks better of the note and decides to call Maya instead. As he approaches the pay phone to dial her number, George hears gunshots behind him and sees a man standing over his brother, who has now been shot dead.
George identifies the man later in a lineup, a man named Kane (Leon Rippy). But because George didn’t actually see Kane pull the trigger, the suspect is able to walk free. Unbeknownst to George, Brad left him in charge of his district in the event of his death. It’s a surprising revelation to George, who went from being unemployed to being a Patrol Special in a matter of hours. Suddenly George finds himself in quite a responsible position, being in charge of keeping the people of his brother’s district safe.
Viewers don’t see much of George Kuffs before he hears the news of Maya’s pregnancy and then witnesses his brother’s death. We’re supposed to believe that George is a live-in-the-moment kind of guy, a well meaning but irresponsible dreamer looking to dodge the 9-5 grind and instead hit that “one big score” so he can retire. His talk to the camera and declaration of, “women to do, places to see,” after Maya gives him news of the pregnancy is supposed to suffice, telling the audience who he is.
It’s weak character development to say the least, but this is why Slater is the perfect choice to play George Kuffs.
Slater was known to audiences as the bad boy — the young, ‘screw authority’ troublemaker with the wide sarcastic smile and up-to-no-good arched eyebrows. After playing troubled teenage outsiders in Heathers (1989) and Pump Up the Volume (1990), and a 1989 arrest in West Hollywood for evading police and driving under the influence, Slater had the built -n reputation needed to fill in the blanks of who George Kuffs is.
The moment he’s seen dancing with his girlfriend while wearing his shades inside, George is instantly known as a character.
That’s what Slater was capable of, immediate character development simply by being cast. And throwing him into a very adult situation surrounded by authority figures allows the inherent slacker and inner rebel within Slater to shine. Kuffs really is a fish out of water story, and Slater is a fun fish to watch.
While George attempts to learn the ins and outs of being a Patrol Special, his fellow officers see him as an unskilled brat who doesn’t stand a chance.
Among the many skeptics is Captain Morino played by Troy Evans, a familiar face “that guy” actor who had 70 film and TV credits throughout the 1990s.
Morino partners George up with Ted Bukovsky (Tony Goldwyn), a veteran of the police force who is assigned to keep an eye on George. We later find out that his assignment is also a bit of a punishment to Bukovsky as well.
Goldwyn was well known to audiences as an uptight weasel because of his role as the friend who betrays Patrick Swayze in 1990’s mega hit Ghost.
Originally intended for Fisher Stevens of Short Circuit fame, producer Dino de Laurentiis pushed for Tony Goldwyn because of his performance in Ghost, and he does end up being hysterically funny in the film. Here, Goldwyn is a bit uptight and a bit of a weasel, most likely because he’s on probation for sleeping with the chief of police’s wife. George finds this revelation to be cool and warms up to his obligatory partner (and regrets drugging him with sleeping pills so he can drive around looking for Kane, his brother’s killer.)
Before trailing Kane and being led to a Chinese laundromat in the middle of the night, there’s a scene in the patrol car where Ted curses out George, calling him lazy and reckless and other variations of the same insult. Ted laces the insults with several uses of the word f*ck and f*cking, with each use of the word being over-dubbed by a cartoonish sound effect, like a horn or bell. All except the final, definitive “fuck you.”
The scene is a real goofy moment that was meant to poke fun at the PG-13 rating, which allows for one use of the F word. But many advocacy groups thought the film went too far, showing Slater so casually engaging in excessive violence. Because of Slater’s popularity with young people, such violence drew protests of the film for being so thoughtless, with many arguing that Kuffs should have received an R rating.
In hindsight, such righteous indignation only adds another layer of humor to the cursing scene. Not only does it poke fun at the PG-13 rating, it now appears to poke fun at the advocacy groups as well.
Slater excels at being naively thoughtless and brash, but his boyish, cocky charm lightens his actions.
“Hey asshole, if you’re gonna jump, jump,” he yells to a potential suicide jumper on the ledge of a building, trying to act like a cop “otherwise use the bridge like everybody else, you’re screwing up traffic down there!” When he turns to the people in the room behind him and asks, “how’d I do,” he’s genuinely curious about his performance and approach.
George Kuffs tries and he doesn’t even realize it, betraying the slacker he prefers to be. It’s hard not to root for a character like that, and Slater nails the complexity with ease.
The score from Harold Faltermeyer fits with George’s learning on the job. Faltermeyer was coming off the Sylvester Stallone-Kurt Russell action film Tango & Cash when he was asked to do Kuffs. The producers wanted an electronic sound similar to Faltermeyer’s Beverly Hills Cop theme. George Kuffs didn’t take life too seriously, and Faltermeyer created a hoppy, youthful sound to mirror his lifestyle. While Beverly Hills Cop offers a more smooth and rolling sound to mirror Eddie Murphy’s cool, streetwise Axel Foley, Kuffs chooses a more appropriate immature sound, like a man stumbling in the dark trying to find his way, and doing so in spite of himself.
This tone is much more fitting, if not as cool, for the situation that Slater’s George Kuffs finds himself in.
George ends up killing Kane during an attempted ambush in his apartment, the turkey dinner he was preparing for Maya (the two are getting back together) riddled and ruined with bullets.
As George and Maya continue to re-connect, Slater and Jovovich sizzle on the screen.
Two young actors, one already a Hollywood star and the other on the brink of national recognition, bathed in purple neon light while on a nighttime stroll on city sidewalks. The scene transitions to moments before sunrise, a blue light with the Golden Gate bridge in the background. “You’re going to have to make up your mind someday, George,” Maya says as a love song plays over the scene. These over-the-top emotional scenes are the stuff of 1980s and 1990s movie legend (think “It Must Have Been Love” in 1990’s Pretty Woman), and the inclusion here adds a wonderful, nostalgic time stamp to Kuffs.
George continues to watch the mysterious Chinese laundromat and gives a heads up to his partner Ted (now suspended, thanks to George, for overdosing on sleeping pills) that he is going to check out the building. When he breaks into the building, George learns that a crime ring is using the fake business as a front to steal and re-sell valuable artwork and finds himself surrounded by 5 henchmen. While being held back, George calls out the leader for the theft and casually says, “it’s not good, I’m going to have to arrest all of you now, come on,” as he casually swirls his finger in the air in a round-them-up-like motion.
It’s another example of the sarcastic tone in the face of danger that Slater has perfected at this point in his career.
Balancing the action with humor, the criminals tie George to a chair and duct tape his mouth shut while a nearby bomb ticks down to exploding. As he does throughout the film, George speaks directly to the camera in muffled words behind the duct tape while subtitles let the viewer know what he’s saying. “I never thought I’d die this way,” the subtitles read as Slater struggles to talk behind the tape. At this moment, the police dog he brought with him, Thunder, barks. “Neither did he,” Slater mumbles, motioning with his head to the dog. As his partner Ted shows up just in time, the two (and Thunder) inevitably leap through windows out of the building as the bomb explodes behind them, glass and fire everywhere as they land on the sidewalk. More bad news for Ted as the explosion sets the chief of police’s Ferrari on fire, his only means of transportation to get to the scene and make sure George was alright. It’s a laugh out loud moment for Goldwyn as he yells in panicked disbelief, “it’s MELTINGGGGGG!”
Kuffs was released in theaters on January 10, 1992, with all the marketing revolving around its teen idol star, TV spots either opened with “Christian Slater,” or ended with “Christian Slater is Kuffs.”
The film opened in 5th place at the box office behind 1991 holiday holdovers such as Hook, The Prince of Tides, and Father of the Bride to mixed reviews praising Slater and pointing out the film’s uneven tone. People Magazine said that Slater carries the film, but the Los Angeles Times wrote that the jarring violent scenes “make the comedic elements difficult to enjoy.” The Philadelphia Daily News enjoyed the action-humor blend, writing “the film’s absurdity makes it strangely entertaining.”
The film debuted with $5.6 million but managed to increase its take enough over the next few weeks to be a low-end modest hit, more than doubling the reported $10 million budget to a total haul of $21 million. While Kuffs managed to make a little money at the box office, the film’s comedic, immature tone probably pushed away adult ticket buyers, and the negative press from the advocacy groups most likely left parents not willing to purchase tickets for their kids.
Kuffs was released on home video later that year in July. Any teen who missed out on seeing Christian Slater on the big screen made up for it that summer through rentals. The VHS for Kuffs debuted outside of the top 10 at number 13 on the rental charts, but the film consistently stayed there all summer as kids across the country were looking for action, humor, and Christian Slater while on summer vacation.
Only a lukewarm hit in theaters, Kuffs really found its audience like so many films in the ’80s and ’90s did, on VHS home video.
Kuffs is notable as a film that was built around a young star at the peak of his popularity, a total showcase for Christian Slater.
The action and the humor goes for broke, and not every moment successfully lands, but Slater is having an absolute blast as George Kuffs — and the audience can feel it. It almost seems too easy for Slater to win you over, such was the power of his magnetic charm at the time.
Kuffs is undeniably fun with a great cast able to sell what was needed to give the audience a good time. But the essence of the film is Slater showing why he was a star, and Jovovich showing why she would be. The two young actors demonstrate the magic of Hollywood and why stars like themselves will live forever, immortalized in their prime in the hearts of movie watchers.
Not a bad takeaway for a goofy action comedy.