If ever a movie was made with the precise intention of becoming a “guilty pleasure” then Rowdy Herrington's daft 1989 actioner for relentless blood 'n' fury producer Joel Silver, Road House, must surely be it.
Based entirely around the premise that fighting in clubs and bars can be cool, character-building and enable you to get the girl, the set-piece-rife, Patrick Swayze-starring redneck thriller is a delirious mental switch-off of bruising cathartic fun. Playing the legendary Dalton, bar-room “cooler” and principled holder of a PHD in Philosophy, Swayze's the honourable face of hard-line rowdy-eviction. But before you think that this is some form of stealth tactic to make rousting drunken troublemakers a form of noble sacrifice, when infeasibly hot nurse Dr. Elizabeth Clay (big-nosed 80's adolescent fantasy-queen Kelly Lynch) pouts over her pugilistic new paramour that it's a tough job, “but somebody's got to do it”, Dalton succinctly reminds her “that somebody's got to pay somebody to do it.” This may jibe somewhat with the code of ethics that Dalton seems determined to get across to his team of bouncers at the scrap-happy, middle-of-nowhere Double Deuce roadhouse in Jasper, Missouri, and it certainly flies in the face of his anti-corruption stance and the turf-war that he gets embroiled in when local tyrant, Brad Wesley (a perennially smug-faced Ben Gazzara), attempts to muscle-in on every slice of action taking place within a possible hundred-mile radius.
With such a powerful petty dictator ruling the roost, you have to wonder just why Kevin Tighe's hard-done-to club owner, Tildeman, can even be bothered trying to create a glamorous, high-profile establishment round there in the first place. You can't get gas, car parts, beer or whiskey without going through Wesley. He owns the police, and has an enforced share in every business in town. If you don't pay him his dues, his henchmen will cause havoc and his prized monster-truck is apt to plough all over you. Why doesn't Tildeman just set up somewhere else? Because then, folks, we wouldn't have any excuse to escalate the boozy bust-ups into the sort of boondocks grudge-match that would make even John Rambo proud. Confronted with such a pitiless regime and sickened by the contemptible zeal with which he wields his power, Dalton takes on the might of Wesley and his army in that truly inimitable high-concept style so beloved of the 80's.
Ahhhh, the 80's … how I loved them!
The music, the movies, the mullets! Man, I crave the return of the mullet. Mad Martin Riggs showed me the way and, aged 17, I perfected my own take on Gibson's flamboyant, high-management mop after years of dallying around with New Romantic variations. Then along came Swayze and his structurally high-tensile and incredibly rigid addition to the form with Dalton's literally un-dislodgable hairdo. The collar-worrying undercurl at the back, the swept-to-the-rear side-waves, and that mathematically constructed front-flick that neither man nor hurricane could knock out of place – in a word … awesome. There's no denying it … when Dalton first walks into the Double Deuce, bedecked in a tan suede jacket and stonewashed jeans and just surveys the joint with his critical all-seeing eye masked behind his ultra calm and unflappable demeanour, he owns the movie. Right there, right then, you know that as daft as this story is going to get – and it is surely going to go some distance into, quite frankly, ludicrous territory – you're going to buy into it because Swayze looks so damn cool. He may utter some of the worst and most contrived words of warrior-wisdom, and he may flash as much flesh any of the ladies on show, but Swayze headbutts that Dirty Dancing tomfoolery out of the park and takes his first glorious step to becoming the cult figure that was Bodhi, the greatest Zen-surfer/fighter/free-faller/bank-robber/adrenaline-junkie that ever lived, in Kathryn Bigelow's seminal Point Break. He's a one-note character, to be sure, and there's nothing in his fictional DNA that couldn't have been knocked-up on the back of a postage stamp by the pair of screenwriters, David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin. But this doesn't matter. This is the genre of icons. Of larger-than-life and totally over-the-top heroes who crave the quiet life yet have been trained since their conception to become the perfect fighting machines. Likeable loners who really just want to settle down, but whose deadly skills will always ensure that they are perpetually required on the front line of truth, justice and, hey, the good old American Way. The thing is, though, Swayze did have a dark side to some of his characters – his Ruski-battling big brother in Red Dawn, his tough guy in The Outsiders, and even his wrong-side-of-the-tracks yokel with itchy-feet in Dirty Dancing – and this does help propel even the most threadbare and clichéd of screen creations to greater depths of intensity and even unpredictability.
Kelly Lynch wasn't exactly one of those bimbos that adorned many a superficial, yet iconic 80's movie, because given the right material she could actually act as well, as her award-winning turn in Drugstore Cowboy proved. Whilst some of my mates at the time found her irresistible, I was never that smitten. She cuts a fine figure here, though (despite sporting a pair of glasses that would have Coronation Street's Diedre Barlow bawl with envy), as the most unlikely doctor at Jasper's naturally quite busy A & E – what with all the bar-flies who keep getting their heads broken-in at the Double Deuce. Also the recipient of a quite famous love-making scene that must have resulted in a few bruises and abrasions that would have raised a few quizzical eyebrows even from her own friends down at the hospital, Lynch's platinum-blonde has a truly implausible connection to the big baddie, and something that fuels his hatred for Dalton all the more. But the most desirable female on the menu – and there are, indeed, quite a number of tasty offerings – is actress and stunt-girl, Julie Michaels, who plays Wesley's new squeeze, Denise. WOW! What a gal! Her first scene alone, when she initially spies Dalton's arrival across a sea of sawdust, spit and teeth, is the stuff of teenage dreams. In a figure-hugging ultra-short white dress, replete with slits all the way up the sides, the voluptuous delight pops corks with a curvaceous wiggle and saunter that only the ice-cool Dalton could politely ignore. I'll let the effects go unsaid that her, ahem, stand-out scene later on may have upon those of us with weaker wills than those that of the dedicated and serene Dalton … but the truth is that Rowdy Herrington knew exactly what he was doing and sure knew how to please the punters.
One thing about this set-up always sticks in my teeth, however. The normally very reliable Kevin Tighe gets utterly short-thrift from a screenplay that gives him hardly any lines at all, despite his character being the catalyst that gets the whole story underway, and just makes room for lots of shots of him wandering around smoke and booze-filled establishments with a really weird bemused half-smile on his haemorrhoidal chops. Honestly, he can't possibly have looked back on his performance here with anything other than embarrassed contempt. But, then, the film isn't actually about him, is it?
This is the Swayze Show when all said and done, and the late, great star gets stuck in to his macho lead role with considerable gusto.
As I've already implied, Swayze’s Zen-like philosophising would go up several leagues in the subsequent and infinitely superior Point Break, but it surely gained some impetus from the lithe and limber Dalton, whose mindset revolves around the notion that “Those who go out looking for trouble are no match for someone who is prepared for it”. The fighting, and there is plenty of it, is colourful and fun. But it is also decidedly dated and the once-flashy martial arts moves now look highly pedestrian. The ruffians and thugs in Wesley's strict employ aren't all that intimidating and, for the most part, look just like the usual villains you would see in any episode of The A-Team. That said, we get Marshall Teague, who plays Wesley's star man, a brute extensively schooled in all manner of chop-socky and enlivened by a truly sadistic attitude and desire to test his mettle against the clean-cut and revered Dalton. Despite a showboating moment of pool-cue twirling and noggin-mashing, you've just got to love the pantomimic guffaw of pure evil that he delivers after blowing a nice old man's cabin to smithereens. Thankfully, our man is more than capable of going the distance against him. Trained by the famed Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, Swayze's slim build is transformed into a dancing, snake-like Bruce Lee type of glistening sinew and smooth-but-deadly finesse. Put through his paces in kick-boxing and Tai Chi, Swayze was told by Urquidez that he could take his natural talents to tournament level if he so desired. Swayze politely declined and said that he'd stick to just acting tough, but this was to prove a definitive moment for him. He'd already showed the world his phenomenal physical prowess in Dirty Dancing, and he'd even revealed some latent martial arts skills in Ted Kotcheff's 1983 Vietnam actioner, Uncommon Valor, but he was stepping up his game very considerably here. His moves are quick and brutal – the first trick we see him perform is the delicious knife take-down that includes ramming a man's face through a table in one devastating hydraulic shove – but there is a balletic quality to the extended skirmishes that come later. His showstopping battle with Teague's merciless Jimmy on the lakeside, lit by a raging inferno, was, for a long time, hailed as one of the great cinematic one-on-ones. Now, it seems a little too choreographed and far less nasty than it once did, but there is no denying the primal entertainment that it offers with a barrage of blood-curdling body blows, kicks, knees to the face and slamming take-downs and submission holds. Oh, and that notorious throat ripping!
Of course, I can't neglect to wax lyrical about the greatest genuine cowboy actor that Hollywood has ever produced, can I? And the fact that Sam Elliott is even in this film elevates all the more, with his portrayal of the much older and more beat-up, though no less legendary bouncer, Wade Garrett, the man who taught Dalton how to crack heads … politely. I've discussed the muscle-packed mullet atop Swayze's head, but you've just got to hand it to the machine-tooled grey-streaked Medusan locks that have become so distinctive of the star of Blue Jean Cop (aka Shakedown), Mask, Fatal Beauty and Tombstone. Nobody can carry off such a wretched, unwashed and grizzled look as well, or as fetchingly, as Elliott. Hell, he even makes that crazy over-the-top ponytail look cool! But it's that voice, isn't it? I've written, at length, about the power of that voice in other reviews (a personal favourite can be barely deciphered from his growling Air Cav Sgt. Major in We Were Soldiers) … and his deep-down Southern drawl, that sounds like tectonic plates at the Earth's crust grinding together, is a thing of rare and intimidating beauty.
There is something of a riff on Top Gun about this scenario, though. Whilst the latent homosexuality thing between Maverick and Goose has not been applied to Dalton and Wade, the same set-up is pretty much re-enacted. Both cherish one another's company and wisdom. They work exceptionally well as a team. When one comes to visit the other one, the old playful rivalries are rekindled, but both are bound by a joint destiny. We even have a diner-set sequence in which the newcomer to this set-in-stone relationship – Lynch's nurse - gets to know the hero courtesy of the charm of the old friend. And, of course, despite the various scrapes that the duo get into, one of them – and you can guess who that is, can't you – is going to have to pay the ultimate price and becomes the final nail in the motivational coffin for the other one if the campaign is finally going to be won.
But Elliott makes this cliché believable by the sheer power of his own gruff charisma. With a gammy-leg to hinder him, Wade Garrett, Dalton's more seasoned mentor, has to make do with anvil-like fists and a stare that could burn through steel quicker than that kid from Krypton. Yet the rugged excellence of Elliott is that doesn't actually have to do much to have a massive screen impact. It's that ursine voice of his again. That's the toughest thing about him. You could be admitted to Causality with multiple cuts and contusions just after being shouted at by the man! Even the quieter, more intimate scenes in which Swayze and Elliott have to convince us that their bond goes back years become much less cloying and formulaic with the well-worn gravitas that each actor is able to bring to the screen.
Indeed, there is considerable cheese smothering all of this character-based stuff, but it goes hand-in-hand with Gazzara's highly unbelievable villain. Here is a man who glibly weaves his prestige car all across the road in the full knowledge that all who are in his path will get out of the way. He struts around his mansion in pink shirts or pink dressing gowns, bestowing his goons with floozies, guns, liquor and pool-parties (!), yet all the while he harbours desires for, of all people, Dalton's own new missus, and in spite of having the ample, and highly flexible Denise at his beck and call, like all uber-bad guys from the period, he appears practically impotent. He lives out his fantasies vicariously through the frolicking of his troops and, naturally, getting slow-burn jollies by spying on the roof-top lovemaking that Dalton and his naughty nurse indulge in. But this is all the play-book smokescreen to that irascible bullying that clearly floats his boat all the more. He clearly doesn't take failure with good spirits as his comical beating of a once-trusted stooge amply shows. And his upping of this Nazi-like campaign of oppression lifts the whole scenario right up into the stratosphere. It is all leading up to a finale in which Dalton will have to take the battle to him, and that the two will ultimately have to go mano-et-mano … although this hopeless mismatch is a woeful contrivance that panders purely to the action movie template.
The alcohol-tainted atmosphere is further enhanced by the soundtrack that comes courtesy of 80's action regular, Michael Kamen, who's lazy writing here evokes more memories of lethargic Martin Riggs themes for Lethal Weapon than it does his deliriously thrilling masterpiece of Die Hard, so it is extremely fortuitous that the writers found space to create a strong presence for the cult-adored Canadian R&B/honkytonk crooners The Jeff Healey Band. Blind Healey even gets a role specifically written for him as Dalton's ever-dependable acquaintance Cody, the lead singer of the house band at the Double Deuce. Performing from behind one of those terrific chicken fences before Dalton's crew get the place cleaned-up, the band regularly kick up a storm that aids Kamen's more traditional, though sadly quite lacklustre score. Hats off for their rendition of what would become a glorious 80's action anthem, Long Tall Sally, previously heard in Joel Silver's classic Predator. Oh, and speaking of Predator – keep your eyes peeled for the coke-addled gang-leader who takes a plunge off a roof in Predator 2, who plays the blink-and-you'll-miss-him recipient of a bottle over the head in the first brawl we see at the Double Deuce. Furthermore, that's The Thing's Keith David working behind the bar for about two minutes' worth of what appears to be a considerably cut down role. David was a much more accomplished and respected actor than this, even then, and this truncated appearance doesn't even warrant being classed as a cameo.
Lots of characters and a multitude of angles to exploit out of a very flimsy premise, and yet it all seems to work really well.
Visually, this is a pretty amazing looking film too. When you consider that a fair chunk of the duration is chewed-up with time spent in bars and barns, the 2.35:1 aspect might seem a little extravagant. But then you come to realise the luxurious photography, colourful imagery and lush compositions have been specifically designed to evoke a cross between the expansiveness of the Western and the lurid beauty of the comic-book. And then you understand just why Herrington hired the great Dean Cundey as his DOP. The veteran of all the best John Carpenter movies, Cundey's prowling cameras keep a fluid focus on the antics of Dalton and the various ne'er-do-wells that he encounters. The landscapes and the open roads have a unique depth to them, pockets on the horizon show the roving appeal of distant mountains, and the terrific visual dynamic of having Dalton's barn positioned directly opposite Wesley's mansion, and separated only by a picturesque lake, makes for a beautifully arresting contrast between the rustic and homely and the opulent and corrupted. Cundey shows off his penchant for lens flares quite a bit during the early sequences, and that majestic widescreen frame also caters dazzlingly with the film's two BIG stunts – Dalton flinging himself from the right of the image to take out a motorcycle assassin, and the flaming car that is air-blasted into a stunning pirouette across Wesley's immaculate lawn. Herrington, who had previously made the patchy but interesting horror Jack's Back in 1988, but would completely peter-out with the naff boxing drama Gladiator (1992) and the awful Bruce Willis actioner, Striking Distance (1993), gets the joke and he is definitely having a sly wink at the audience as the confrontations get wilder and wilder, and a lowly doorman becomes the veritable saviour of the downtrodden.
America's ongoing love-affair with its own mythical frontier past infiltrates many genres. Convoy is a Western, swapping wagons for 18-wheelers. Dirty Harry is The Man With No Name … just with a badge, a bigger gun and, well, a name. Lethal Weapon is a fairly obvious gunfighter and mentor allegory. Star Wars, of course, has everything that was ever witnessed in the oaters of the Golden Age, just relocated to a place far, far away and long ago. And Road House is an ode to the saloon-skirmish … but Henry and Henkin's screenplay understands that it cannot limit itself to such a concept, and thus is takes on the far more conventional stranger-cleaning-up-the-town angle that will probably never run out of steam no matter how many permutations it undergoes. Shane is the most obvious antecedent. But the connections run even deeper than that. With Dalton acting as a sort of Magnificent One, his deeds of heroism and righteousness provoke a sense of pride in the beleaguered townsfolk, and the ego-battered proprietors of businesses being syphoned-off by Wesley eventually discover their own courage and form an uprising that recalls the final stand-up-and-be-counted attitude of the Mexican villagers after Yul Brynner and his six companions have shown them the way. Even Pale Rider receives a doffing of the cap in this respect.
There is no way that we can call Road House a great film, but it remains one of Hollywood’s most self-indulgent and simple, if disposable pleasures. A two-fisted, action-packed 80’s romp that revels in the high-sheen testosterone of a decade that was trying desperately to find the raw machismo, via muscle, martial-arts and monster-trucks that stars in the thirties and forties could exude with just a mean stare. Swayze is fine as a character haunted by a horrific earlier deed, who must confront his own inner-demons (although there is a degree of eye-rolling corn regarding the manner in which we learn of these demons), and impressively cool with his fists and his feet – which is exactly what we want to see. It is a film made by good ol' boys for good ol' boys, and its ongoing popularity spits in the eye of its only medium box office clout at the time of its release. Home video was where Road House grew and took on the cult stature that has created legions of fans and led to a lame and totally unwanted sequel, made in 2006, that attempted to recapture the rough-hewn, beer-swilling bravado of Swayze's happily cheese-filled opus, but with nowhere near the same appeal, as Dalton's son, an undercover FBI agent, poses as a cooler to avenge the death of his father. Now, to me, that's utter sacrilege. Hearing that Police Chief Brody has died of a heart attack in the lamentable Jaws: The Revenge was bad enough … but the tenuous connectivity to former glories with this desperate clawing for notoriety is beneath contempt. For God's sake – don't they know that Dalton's indestructible?
Road House closed out the 80's with a very agreeable swagger. Sure, it now feels dated and a whole lot safer, but this is big dumb fun that is endlessly entertaining.
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