A rare gem of a movie, TURK 182! is one of my all-time favorite feel good movies and is definitely the only movie on my list that has an exclamation point in the actual title. It’s not a mistake, there really is an exclamation point at the end of the title and it was advertised as such, one-sheet posters and all. After all these years the movie continues to stick in my head as one of the best representations of a story with a protagonist fighting for a cause that everyone can get behind. In today’s dangerous mine-field of political backtalk and left-right doublespeak that makes the Geek set (especially the younger ones) feel like no one really gets their point of view, it is important for them to see “old” movies like Turk to see that as cliché as it sounds some things are worth fighting for no matter the odds.
Jimmy Lynch, played by Timothy Hutton just a few years after winning his Oscar for Ordinary People, is one of those guys you can really root for and the film never gets old. It is the classic underdog story; an urban spray-painting graffiti Rocky Balboa has his shot at the title. But instead of using his fists, Jimmy uses his God given artistic talent to make his and his brother’s voice heard. Jimmy is a regular Brooklyn 20-year old still trying to find his place in NYC. Jimmy’s much older brother Terry (the late great Robert Urich), a veteran firefighter is off-duty at the local bar Hooly’s, when a fire breaks out in a neighboring building. Responding as quickly as he can despite having thrown back a few, Terry springs into action and to save a missing little girl in the fiery building. With the fire getting worse by the minute and no back-up, Terry heroically finds the girl and just as he is about to escape the fire department blasts the door open with their astonishingly powerful hose. Terry and the little girl are thrown out a fourth story window and land on a car. It is a heartbreakingly realistic scene and you know in your heart while watching it that the booze is going to come into account as the story unfolds.
After losing their parents to alcoholism and suicide, Jimmy was raised by Terry. More like a father than a big brother, Jimmy is forced to watch Terry burn through his savings and become increasingly detached in his rehab six months after the accident. With letters and bills piling up from city agencies wanting money and denials of claims for benefits, Jimmy takes it upon himself to go to City Hall to try and find some face to face lenience and instead walks into an impromptu press conference with Mayor Tyler of NYC (Robert Culp). Tyler is in the midst of a scandal himself the press has dubbed “Zimmerman Flew and Tyler Knew.” Apparently the Tyler assigned Public Works Commissioner Zimmerman fled the city to Brazil to avoid prosecution for a looming scandal. They do not go that deep into the details of the scandal, which is a smart move by director Bob Clark because the audience automatically assumes it must be sex, drugs or money. In an election year the press is having a field day with the scandal that is bringing Tyler’s re-election campaign down further by the day. After Jimmy makes a big scene amongst the reporters, Mayor Tyler’s handlers allow the kid to speak. Ever the politician, Mayor Tyler only listens to part of Jimmy’s story and calls his older brother a drunk, humiliating both Jimmy and his family’s name. In an act of childish vandalism just after the Mayor’ crushing tongue lashing, Jimmy paper-hangs the office of the Mayor with all of the city notices he has received. (Just to be clear it was a hell of a lot easier to get into just about anywhere back in the 1980’s, especially in NYC.) Furious, Mayor Tyler berates and reprimands his head of security Detective Ryan, played in scary Joe-like fashion by Peter Boyle. With the name of Terry on all of the papers, Ryan and his goons head to Hooly’s and arrest the very drunk elder Lynch. After Jimmy attempts to get his brother out of jail and meets up with social worker Dani Boudreau (Kim Cattrall) they learn that while in custody Terry tried to kill himself. With Terry in a full body cast at Blake Memorial and in worse financial shape than ever, Jimmy runs down to Battery Park to the Mayor’s next scheduled appearance having to do with his main election platform of cleaning up New York. Despite making a scene to no avail, Jimmy sees a group of vandals paint “Zimmerman Flew and Tyler Knew” on the massive Golden Apple the Mayor presented. Jimmy has a lightbulb idea and he figures out a way to be heard.
It is important to note that all of New York City was under siege by graffiti in the 1980’s. It was everywhere you looked and notoriously took up every last inch of most subway cars. Times Square did not always look like you just stepped into Disney World. NYC was a much scarier place in those years and every blank wall was a potential canvas. After rummaging through Terry’s old fireman equipment Jimmy comes across what will be his calling card—“Turk 182.” As an enthusiastic young FDNY firefighter Terry was given the name Terrence “Turk” Lynch because of his fervent passion for the job. His badge number was 182. With the election rapidly approaching Tyler has many high-profile personal appearances on his schedule including the first at the Hoyt St. subway station for the presentation of a graffiti-proof “Super-Train.” The black tie event is foiled as Jimmy sandblasts and then paints a brilliant mural on the side of the subway car saying “Zimmerman Flew, Tyler Knew. TURK 182!” Mortified by the very public stunt the Mayor’s future is now in jeopardy.
When the subway stunt is the lead story on all of the network news stations Jimmy realizes the power of his message. While no one know what the actual Turk moniker means, it is clear that Jimmy has struck a chord with New Yorkers. Bigger stunts continue, including an airplane banner ad with the phrase “Tyler Knew! Turk 182!” and brilliant art on a NYC courthouse, the Mayor’s license plate, police horses, etc. Naturally the police assume that this is the work of a team of anti-Tyler political zealots but it is just Jimmy. The Turk 182 message begins to appear at Zoo’s, on Buses, in Central Park and on billboards. TURK becomes a national sensation with NYC street dealers selling “I Heart TURK” t-shirts. In his coup de gras, while at a NY Giants game with Dani, Jimmy and an old electronics junkie friend rig the Jumbotron to display his message in front of 50,000 people to rousing applause of approval. A folk hero has been born.
Naturally Jimmy and Dani form a romantic relationship after she discovers who Jimmy really is and although you can see it a mile out it’s organic and nice to see the kid score with an “older” woman. Not Sex and the City old, but you get the idea. While the Turk movement is more popular than ever, Terry is getting ready to get his cast off and he tells Dani and Jimmy, without telling them, that once they remove him from this human prison, he is going to kill himself. Distraught, Jimmy heads home only to find Det. Ryan and special Detective Kowalski (Darren McGavin) staking out his apartment. With time running out Jimmy allows himself to be interviewed at the Daily News amongst hundreds of other would-be Turks. But when the news airs just a small portion of the interview Jimmy knows that his final act must be a doozy.
The whole world is watching at Mayor Tyler’s celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the Queensboro Bridge, waiting for the massive structure to light up. Disguised as an electrical worker Jimmy has infiltrated the bridge crew and one of the most memorable finales of the 80’s ensues. While I am sure you know how it’s going to end, you don’t know how it’s going to end. It would be criminal to ruin it, but if it does not give you goose bumps or make the hair on the back of your neck stand up then check your pulse because you very well may not be human.
Bob Clark, director of the world’s apart hits Porky’s and A Christmas Story, does a very nice job of meshing together genres and making a true winner of the film. It is a story of pre-Internet courage. when people still stood for something, as opposed to hiding behind a screen name while barking things at people and groups they would never tangle with face to face. For me that is what has made Turk stand the test of time so well for the past 28 years. We still see these types of problems today where good, honest people are hurt on the job and denied benefits. Their lives are ruined just for doing what they do best; helping other people. In my opinion the geekism of the film resonates not just with Jimmy’s amazing art and creativity, but in standing out from the crowd. While never an easy choice, doing the right thing and taking a stand is what being a Geek is all about; loving something so passionately that you will go against the grain because it is your thing. Without sounding schmaltzy it is always nice to see a good movie about how sometimes the little guy can outsmart the biggest of them all. Even the Big Apple.
Den of Geek Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars