The Action/Adventure Section: ROAD HOUSE (1989)

We are not prone to cynicism here on Cinapse. We are connoisseurs of all cinema’s rich cultural stew, from the most intellectual of foreign films to the cheesiest of action flicks. Speaking of which, our own Action/Adventure section tends to deal with action cinema’s ’80s-set ultra-violent, Republican-infected glory days, and our appreciation of such cinematic fodder tends to be directly proportional to how strong our cynic rays are. It’s easy to mock the ludicrous explode-a-thons of bone-headed, revenge-driven steroid addicts as they go head-to-head with the bad guys du jour – be they drug dealers, psychotic mercenaries or those bloody foreigners us capitalist pig dogs have a thing about.

Yet the best of these types of actioners have a purity of heart, free from the annoying modern-day tendency to smother everything in a thick layer of irony for fear of coming across as kitsch. Where all they want to do is entertain rather than intellectually stimulate. It is inherent film snobbery that doesn’t recognise that the works of your Mark L. Lesters and your Sam Firstenbergs are just as culturally relevant as a heavy dose of the Krzysztof Kieslowskis.

Which brings me to Road House.

According to Rowdy Herrington’s much-beloved slug-fest, seemingly everyone in America has heard of man-of-few-words Dalton and his legendary bouncing exploits, with those in the know in awe of his fighting prowess, glistening torso and luxuriant hair. Those either not in the know or willing to try their hand get that hand broken off and shoved up their own dark recesses. Which are pretty useful skills when he’s employed by the owner of the Double Deuce, the roughenist, toughenist bar in the county, to try to sort out all the bar brawling, drug dealing and provocative female behaviour that’s putting a massive dent in profits whilst simultaneously keeping the local handymen in gainful employment.

“So it says here on your CV your specialist skills are ‘throat-ripping’ and ‘being nice?’”

Unfortunately, he comes up against local businessman/all-round twat-about-town Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara) and his redneck cronies. Fortunately he gets to hook up with local doctor and social conscience Kelly Lynch (who replaced the originally cast Annette Bening). As Dalton metes out his own brand of philosophical justice, the war with Wesley escalates to the point he needs to draft in his old mentor/father-figure Wade Garrett (Sam Elliot), setting up a showdown where fists are eventually substituted for guns.

On the surface, Road House doesn’t do itself any favours. Nominated for five Golden Raspberry awards, including worst film, worst director, worst screenplay and worst actor nods for Patrick Swayze and Ben Gazzara, the story of James Dalton, who is, of course, the ‘best damn cooler (read: bouncer) in the business’, seems perfectly designed to give your cynic glands a merciless prodding. Swayze’s Dalton comes across as a bit of a self-absorbed prick, all zen-like aloofness spouting cod-philosophical cobblers like “nobody wins a fight,” and “never leave a chip pan unattended”; women are invariably portrayed as doe-eyed, gyrating hair-dos – clothing optional; performances and dialogue, much like the fight scenes, aren’t exactly the height of sophistication; the seen-it-all-before set-up is your basic lone hero cleaning up a town in the grip of a power/money-hungry douchebag with short-man syndrome; and it’s all orchestrated by a director called Rowdy. So far, so predictable.

And any film that employs the awesome Keith David and cuts out most of his scenes is an idiot.

Yet Road House’s black and white simplicity adds to its charm. And it helps that helmsman Rowdy Herrington surrounds himself with a quality cast and crew, many of whom would go on to greater things, like Jurassic Park lensman Dean Cundy and noted film composer Michael Kamen, all under the belligerent eye of legendary action flick producer Joel Silver.

As per David Lee Henry’s and Hilary Henkin’s slyer-than-you-think script, there’s a glint in the eyes of nearly the entire cast that seems to suggest, “Yes, this is ridiculous, but fuck it, it’s fun.” Ostensibly a cross between a modern-day Western and a testosterone-fuelled male wish-fulfilment fantasy, Road House has your monosyllabic hero with a mysterious past, a corrupt landowner/businessman oppressing and terrorising helpless townsfolk in equal measure, and many of the characters are named after wild-west luminaries (Dalton after the Dalton Gang, Wade Garrett shares his name with Pat, etc).

Substituting guns for direct and to the point fisticuffery, the ensuing fight scenes are fairly basic to eyes more used to The Raid age, but are actually reasonably well-done, with nearly everyone doing their own stunts. As Jeff Healey’s blindingly good blues rock band valiantly play on, bar brawls erupt over nothing and are suitably chaotic (amusingly reminiscent of Burt Reynold’s many redneck rumbles or, as the director himself put it, “like a Keystone Cops melee”), and Swayze’s ballet experiences serves him well (as did the training he received from martial arts legend and Jackie Chan’s nemesis Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez) in his frequent smack-downs with Wesley’s henchmen and the many drunken ne’er do wells frequenting the Double Deuce.

It didn’t serve him well in the gratuitous ‘White People Dancing’ scenes, though.

Swayze, riding on the wave of success following his turn hurling teenage girls around summer camps in Dirty Dancing, uses a combination of wry humour and his inherent onscreen charm to battle through the ridiculous po-facedness of Dalton’s character. Ben Gazzara has perhaps the most smug, punchable face of any man ever, delivering a suitably oily portrayal of utter bastardry. And Sam Elliot is effortlessly cool as the sage-like Wade Garrett, sharing a genuinely warm camaraderie with his mulletted protégé (and sporting perhaps the most luxuriant head of hair of any man ever). Predictably though, women don’t get much of a look in, either portrayed as hormonally-charged sluts like head-honcho prison-fucker Marshall Teague’s squeeze Julie Michaels (now a veteran stunt coordinator, fact fans), or teary-eyed nags appalled at all the unnecessary throat-ripping violence going on all the time.

“Pain don’t h-OLY FUUUUUCK!”

Whether it’s as intentionally cheesy and lunk-headed as it’s meant to be is up for conjecture and is, quite frankly, beside the point. Road House turns out to be a big, lovable galoot of a movie, lacking in pretention and filled to the brim with macho-posturing, vague homoeroticism, dialogue as quotable as it is fruity (“I used to fuck guys like you in prison!” – anyone?), hissable villains, and glorious hair-dos.

“Not the hair! Not the hair!”

Swayze would, of course, go on to become one of the biggest box-office draws of the early ’90s thanks to more zen-like shenanigans in the silly uber-macho surfing antics of Point Break and supernatural heartstring-tugger Ghost, until a chronic case of the career doldrums and pancreatic cancer cut his life tragically short (coincidentally the same disease Ben Gazzara would also succumb to three years later).

A belated sequel featuring a murdered Dalton’s DEA agent son beating up Miami drug dealers was released in 2006 and literally no one cared. Although the recent announcement of a female-centric Road House remake starring UFC Expendable Ronda Rousey and directed by Nick Cassavetes (whose dad directed Ben Gazzara in art-house classic The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, coincidence-fans) sounds intriguing, they’ll need some spectacular, bone-cracking action, a smart script full of strong characters, and give Keith David something to do other than serve drinks to make up for the lack of Swayze, Elliot and ’80s cheese that made the original so winning. Even then, it probably wouldn’t inspire an off-Broadway stage production with the fantastic title, “Road House: The Stage Version Of The Cinema Classic That Starred Patrick Swayze, Except This One Stars Taimak From The ’80s Cult Classic The Last Dragon (1985) Wearing A Blonde Mullet Wig.

If you haven’t got it already, you can always buy Road House (the film, not the off-Broadway play unfortunately) from multiple retailers, including this lot.

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the author

JC: Family Man. Cinephiliac. Over-opinionated Brit. For more of my nonsensical cinematic ramblings check out or follow me on Twitter: @jconthagrid