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Playing For Keeps

Any movie whose video cover features a bunch of toothy grin sporting teens that would make the cast of Saved By The Bell look like a bunch of drug peddling thugs, has its main production notes written in the kind of incomprehensible cursive handwriting seen on college English papers, and was made in the ’80s, thus making it prime material for old school riffing, automatically finds a home in my collection. And thank goodness, that previously empty space on the shelf has been filled by Playing For Keeps.

I also picked this movie up because the plot description on the back of the box claimed it was a musical. Now how the heck could I pass up a musical from the ’80s? I mean, hello? Xanadu was only the funniest thing to come out of Hollywood during that decade, so I figured this flick would deliver the same kind of experience. The lesson I learned here, however, is that I should never trust plot descriptions.

We begin with some really ugly filter shots of New York City. Some buildings are blazing red while others are blinding yellow, and when you factor in a really mediocre ’80s pop tune the chances for this movie’s possible success are pretty much dashed. After the opening credits are taken care of, we’re forced to sit through a slideshow narrated by one of the side characters. I don’t understand why the movie isn’t narrated by the main character, since he’s the one that the story revolves around, but I digress. This slideshow is painful because it’s a sorry excuse to introduce every single character and get their exposition out of the way. It also starts out with a line so dripping with schmaltz I wanted to gag: Have you ever had a dream, but everyone said you were crazy? Uh-oh, I smell a movie that was showing during guidance counselor time at elementary schools!

First and foremost we meet Danny, who is the main character but was sick the day someone had to record the narration and so allowed this mook to take the job. Danny’s one of those dreamer types everyone likes to scoff at in the movies. He comes up with all kinds of cooky schemes to get rich quick, including, oh my this is cooky, a portable car wash! The slide show depicts someone tossing a bucket of soapy water at a moving car. Oh, these kids today.

Then there’s Spikes, the narrator of the movie. When we see his picture it’s pretty obvious that Spikes doesn’t deserve the nickname he received, because he looks more like a chess team member named Reggie McFalderwald IV than anything else. And finally we get Silk, the only black guy in the entire movie. We never really learn much about him outside the fact that he wants to be a dancer. Well, I’m glad all of that icky exposition is out of the way. Now, on to the really stupid plot!

See, this trio of best buds are getting ready to graduate from high school, and Danny is worried that they won’t end up doing anything special with their lives. Spikes is hired to be a Speedy delivery man, while Silk considers becoming a janitor. But Danny does not wish to serve The Man by taking some low paying job. No! He wants to do something special! So at his graduation, he makes a speech about how high school has done nothing to prepare him for life, which results with him not receiving his diploma. Oops! Guess you’re in for another year of not learning anything, Danny boy. Strangely enough, the whole him not getting his diploma angle is never brought up again.

After the graduation scene, the boys play a game of Christopher Columbus. What, you mean you’ve never heard of that game? Aw, come on old people, that’s what all the kids are playing these days! It’s an extreme version of hide and seek, in which rival teams hunt one another down throughout the city for 24 HOURS. Yeah, I find that a little lengthy as well. When do they stop to eat? Does everyone get some kind of lunch break around the 12-hour mark? Nevertheless I had to sit through a montage where various people hide, are found, and get thrown in “jail,” which is a big rusted cage you might find in the zoo of the damned.

During a moment where our trio plot to rescue their teammates from jail, two girls pop up to join the fun. One is Tracy, Spikes’ hot to trot girlfriend. And the other girl…doesn’t factor into the plot, really. She’s just kind of there for being there’s sake. Tracy gives Spikes some food, confirming that he’s the hungry character who is always thinking about stuffing his face. Why, he’s like a modern Shaggy! No wait, no he’s not, he’s a lot more annoying.

Moving along, Silk distracts the guards of the jail by waving around Tracy’s panties and claiming he got them from one of the guard’s sisters. This enrages the guards, and as they go after Silk, Danny attempts to tag his teammates from their terrible imprisonment. But suddenly, a rival Christopher Columbian pops up and threatens Danny with a switchblade! “Hey man, the rule was that we didn’t use any weapons!” Danny protests. “Well I’m a-changin’ da rules, Danny!” snarls the evil guard. So Danny’s team loses the game and that scene comes to a close. Oh, pooh, and I was just getting into the suspense.

Danny goes home to find that his younger sister, Marie, has donated their hamburgers to the poor people down the hall. Danny points out how they are very poor, but Marie states she is on a hunger strike until all of the starving people in the world are fed. Yeah, good luck with that honey. How about you take part in that Hands Across America bunk and save some African babies as well?

Danny hopes that there is still some money in the Rainy Day Account, so he brings out a small box and looks inside to find the deed which will change his life (and ours) forever. Turns out that Danny’s mom owns an old piece of property called the Hotel Majestic which has $8000 in unpaid taxes to its name. When mom arrives she promptly tells Danny to forget about the hotel and find a new job, seeing as the lug quit his old one because it wasn’t “going anywhere.” Kid, you’re 18! What the heck did you expect?

Of course, Danny doesn’t forget about the hotel, and he gets the gang together to try and convince them to open it up again. Spikes and Silk are more than a little hesitant, because they are all too familiar with Danny’s past exploits for getting rich. “Remember that lemonade stand you had us run when we were eight?” asks Spikes. But then Danny starts working on the guys. “Can you imagine Spikes? You could be the athletic director of the hotel! Hot babes in bikinis, and all the food you can eat!” This is where the movie went nuts.

Suddenly a tube of glowing rings appears around Spikes’ head, an effect I can only compare to the space tunnel from Kubrick’s 2001. When we get to see the whole shot again, Danny is surrounded by the aforementioned bikini babes in a room full of fog. At this point I was astonished, because this device came out of absolutely no where! I also assumed this would lead into the film’s first musical number, since the box claimed Playing For Keeps was a musical, but no, we just get another bad pop tune in the background while the women wiggle and worm around for Spikes’ pleasure. Tracy comes out of the fog holding a tray of goodies. When she claims to be the dessert on tonight’s menu, Spikes looks like he peaks right then and there on camera. His eyes bug out and he smiles like an idiot!

Okay, so we come back to reality, where Silk is still unconvinced about the hotel’s chances. So we get another sequence where Danny has Silk envision himself as the organizer of the hotel’s club, where he will be the lead performer. A magical star appears around Silk’s skull and soon we’re watching him prance around in sillhouette. He then brings some limp female dancers to life by, and I’m not joking, zapping them with neon lightning bolts! This section of the movie is so different from what led up to it that it boggles my mind, really. Silk goes on to dance with a naughty looking nurse, a stern teacher, and her student, who looks like she came from the set of a really bad porn movie.

Coming back to reality, the guys seems to be jazzed and rearin’ to go on this project. But wait, what about that $8000 in back taxes? Uh-oh! Looks like Danny’s dream has been put on hold. But does he just give up? Heck no! He strives on, by golly. So the boys try to sell weight loss pills and home security devices door-to-door, a scene made hilarious by the 78 pound woman and a man who owns two fierce rotweilers. Oh, the irony. Feh.

Danny then comes up with a brilliant idea. The boys are shown in sillhouette against two glowing doors. “Okay guys, let’s dance!” Danny says, and they troop inside an office building where dozens of people are hard at work at their cubicles. I assumed the boys would start doing some sort of Chippendales show for the ladies, or at least SING A SONG to make this movie a musical, but no, sadly they just sell Thin Mints while posing as Boy Scouts. Somehow this allows them to earn the $8000 they need in order to officially buy the hotel for keeps…hey, they played for keeps! What a world, huh?

But unbeknownst to our heroes, a greedy industrialist wants that hotel property so he can build a chemical waste dump on the site, or, as he likes to call it, a “chemical relocation and processing facility.” Curse you greedy industrialists and your semantics arguments! Anyway, GI (who I do not think was ever given a name unless I just didn’t care to catch it) is working with the president of the town’s council to set up this plant. The townspeople don’t know about this project, of course, since it would make them very angry, so it’s supposed to be kept top secret. GI is furious over our heroes buying the hotel, and pressures the president to foil their plans of reopening the place. The President assures GI that all will work out according to plan and that he will take care of things.

Meanwhile, the trio, along with Tracy, pack up their bags and hop into a very colorful Mystery Inc.-style van to go visit the hotel. In order to add yet another mediocre pop tune to the already ballooning soundtrack, Phil Collins sings a tune while we get shots of the van driving across the country. Yeah, that was five minutes I’ll never see again. Thanks Phil!

When the kids arrive at the hotel, they are surprised to find that it is not the glorious building they saw in a picture, but rather a big pile of cobwebs, rotting wood, and garbage. Cue the warbling tuba sound effect, Jimmy: warr warr warrrrr! Thanks, Jimmy. While they explore the building, they are shocked to hear someone greet them from upstairs. They automatically assume it’s a ghost for some very stupid reason (why is this movie looking more and more like a lame Scooby Doo episode?), but it turns out to be a kindly old hermit named Rock. Rock E. Feller. GET IT?!

Oh, before I keep going, I forgot to mention the character Danny meets while trying to find the hotel. She’s a pretty farm girl who will, take three guesses, fall in love with our hero. Her name is Chloe, but we won’t see her for a bit, so let’s move on, shall we?

Everyone is pretty angry with Danny over the crappy condition of the hotel, but then he gets yet another brilliant idea. They will turn the building into a Rock n’ Roll hotel, complete with MTV in every room and an Aerosmith suite. Wow, what a positively sure-fire idea. Couldn’t miss. Really. But the kids seem to think it’s neat-o, so they follow Danny like sheep once more.

When the kids visit a hardware store to pick up supplies, Silk tells the salesman about the MTV in every room part of their strategy. The President is also in the store, and after the kids leave he begins to spread rumors about how wild the new hotel will be, going so far as to change MTV from LSD. Gasp! The locals are not at all pleased by this news, which leads them to basically snub the group of teens and not help them in any way, shape, or form.

Over the course of the rest of the movie our heroes face many an obstacle, from the snooty townsfolk to the President’s wrath. They are given a limit of 30 days to bring the hotel up to code or else the property will be torn down and taken from their possession entirely. Despite all of this, Danny still makes time to skinny dip with Chloe and supposedly get some action (we’ll never know because the movie faded out just as they were sucking face in the algae-infested lake water; fiddlesticks, am I right?).

The kids are even harassed at the town diner, where a bunch of muscled bullies pour ketchup and salt all over their food. I know, the things our species resorts to in the name of hatred, right? But despite all of these setbacks the three Musketeers press on. They know they’ll never be able to repair the hotel in time working by themselves, so they return to NYC in order to recruit some investors. These investors include the stoned mechanic, a geeky video game fan, and a guy who’s main priority in life is getting laid. Yep, these cats all check out. Who better to invest in a stupid rock and roll hotel?

In case you were wondering, the old hermit Rock doesn’t do much but pop up whenever the kids need some fatherly wisdom. He’s constantly saying how great it is to have a dream and blah blah blah, but then gets arrested for some dirty Wall Street trades. What?! That came out of absolutely no where (that’s the second time I’ve had to say that) and seemed to serve no purpose other than to add another note of supposed drama. Other notes include Danny and Silk getting arrested, Danny getting arrested for jaywalking in front of his sister, who was visiting the town to see how he was doing IRONICALLY, and the second coming of the Ice Age. Oh, wait, that’s another movie.

Eventually Chloe and Danny hit on the President and GI’s dastardly plan of opening the chemical waste dump in the town, so they devise an ingenious plot to bring both of the crooks down to Chinatown. How do they do this, considering the entire town hates their guts and wants nothing to do with them? Why, they play the ultimate game of Christopher Columbus! Yep, Danny gets all of his pals together and gives this bogus speech about dreams and victory, ending it with this face: We’re not playing for fun anymore…we’re playing for keeps!”

Ladies and gentlemen, a title is born.

The next segment of the movie has the gang of city kids sneaking about the town at night, rewiring certain sections of buildings and basically breaking into any place they can find. Yes, that will get you in good with the townsfolk! The next morning all heck breaks loose, with the geek video game lover using a remote control to make the diner go coo-coo for Coco Puffs. The juke box stars spitting out records, the kitchen overflows with suds, and the oven bursts into flames. Now, wait, how the heck do you make a kitchen overflow with suds by changing the wiring??? And again, how is this supposed to make the townspeople like them, even if it is revealed that their President is in cahoots with a greedy industrialist?

Ah, I forgot, this is just one big diversionary tactic to get a bulldozer through town. See, Spikes sets off these fog bombs in the street so Silk and Tracy (dressed as nuns so they can rent the thing for free for some bizarre, unexplained reason) can drive it across a rickety bridge and finish digging the sinkhole needed to bring the hotel back up to code. If you’re scratching your head, don’t feel too bad. Also, the kids broke into the grocery store to mark down all of the steak to eleven cents a pound, sending the customers into an all out riot of shopping frenzy. All this so Danny can break through the door of the President’s office and steal some lousy documents that prove he was aiding the chemical plant production.

Quick note: Why didn’t they just use the old movie cliche of having the kids record the President saying something incriminating? You know the old routine. It would go something like this:

Danny: I know all about the chemical plant!

President: So? You’ll never be able to prove it! I’m going to fill this town with waste and get rich, and THERE’S NOTHING THAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT!

Danny: (cue taking out the handheld recorder from his pocket and a devilish grin; also cue the shocked expression on President’s face)

Instead the kids came up with this ridiculously complicated plan of fog bombs, nun costumes, juke boxes, suds, and the second Ice Age. Wait, what? Dang! Nevermind. All I’m saying is, why go the Animal House route of using total chaos when you can just buy a stinking handheld recorder? But I digress. Danny gets the President to come by the hotel by saying he wants to sell it to him once and for all. But once the villain arrives, Danny starts discussing the plant and waves those incriminating documents in his face. This leads to the above speech, which is overheard by the entire town. Why? Because during the diversion, our teen heroes KIDNAPPED the entire town and drove them to the hotel via that tiny van. Uh, OKAY!

I think you can connect the dots from here, folks. The kids win and get to open the Hotel Majestic, but I have to say, it ended up being three times uglier than before they arrived. The building looks like it was dunked into a bowl of pure ’80s trash, with cubist leopards at the head of the staircase, neon blue triangles all over the walls, and much, much more. It’s headache inducing, really. And what’s more, the hotel actually does end up hosting what amounts to a mob party. Chloe insists that they have enough accomadations for everybody, but I’m not joking when I say that every square inch of floor space is taken up by about 3,000,000 kids. How is this hotel even going to run properly? How are they going to stop kids from doing drugs? And why are they offering drinks when they’re all still 18??? Oh, that’s right, I’m using logic again. Darn me!

Oh, and it has to be said that Rock returns to party with the kids. Because, as we all know, they let you out of jail for one night so you can party with teenagers. This is followed by a truly nightmarish song sung by Silk, who’s singing in a night club that’s more akin to an actual stadium because thousands upon thousands of people are watching his performance. Why, it’s as if they weren’t shooting the scene in a hotel at all! Gasp! I am happy to say that the song is actually song by one of the characters ONSCREEN and not by Phil Collins or anyone else in the background, but that still doesn’t make Playing For Keeps a musical. Not by a long shot, I say!

So there ya have it, folks. Spikes comes back for one more useless narration where he repeats that whole dream monologue and how, in the end, they succeeded even though people called them crazy. Yeah, well I have a dream to wear the flesh of a raccoon. Does that make me crazy, Spikes? Huh?! Eh. I’m out. Peace!

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