Happy 25th Birthday Road House!


Just sittin’ here thinking back on the movie summer of ’89, truly a summer of mixed quality ~ Bond 16, Star Trek 5, Indy 3, Ghostbusters 2 and Kick Ass 0. Road House 1 rather. Just “Road House” actually. Yeah that bouncer movie, and with such man-lines as “If you’re going to have a pet, keep it on a leash,” it’s no wonder it’s developed a following, following enough for a comedic (what else) 2003 off-Broadway stage show and 25 years of deserved ribbing. Don’t worry, the mullet can take it, especially when talk of a remake is in the air. There was a weak direct-to-video pseudo-sequel, 2006’s “Last Call” staring Johnathon Schaech and Jake Busey that killed off the original’s beloved James Dalton (Patrick Swayze) with a bullet somewhere within the storied fog that hangs between movie installments. Schaech plays Shane, D.E.A. agent and Dalton’s son who shares a similar gift for busting chops and….that’s more than enough. Not that “Road House” set the bar oh so high. Despite its failure to gain entry into the National Film Registry though, this fun dud at least had the decency to follow through on the promises made on its release poster, laid out in 3 conspicuous photos. From top to bottom:

1. Swayze as Dalton buff and buck to the waist in the midst of a tai-chi session, lookin’ all capable of pummeling drunks.
2. Dalton doing lip-ups on the neck of a hot blonde.
3. An exploding car.

Yep. In the words of another late 80s movie barman, Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise) of “Cocktail,” “What you see is what you get.”

In “Road House” we meet Dalton at work, cool-headed, wavy-haired and razor sharp to the demands of his profession. He’s a cooler, which as far as I can tell is a bouncer with supervisory skills, employed at a prosperous club somewhere in urban America. Where isn’t as important as how he performs. Naturally, he’s the best. He subdues the rowdies with unruffled force even when confronted by the dangerously dumb. In the film’s opening encounter, he’s slashed by a man armed with bad movie quotes. “I’ve always wanted to try you,” he growls. “I think I can take you.” Really. The words kick-off long minutes of syrup-brained cinema, groanable one-liners and bar brawls amped for our adolescent pleasure. Skimming the till, sexing in the stockroom, boot knives and stools breaking bar glass ~ it’s all here, a world framed somewhere between the Mos Eisley Cantina and kindergarten.

The main tale begins when Dalton is lured to Jasper, Missouri by Frank Tilghman (Kevin Tighe), a bar owner desperate to reign in the corrupt, drunken circus that is his establishment, the warehouse proportioned Double Deuce. He’s given a salary, full medical coverage (he insists on it) and absolute power over the bar staff. He quickly sends the bad apples packing. A few want to hurt him for it, like Morgan (wrestler Terry Funk), a permed lug who asks Dalton what he’s supposed to do next. “There’s always barber college.” At first Dalton seems to be making progress. As an NYU philosophy major, he’s learned to temper his savage gifts with a show of courtesy. “I want you to be nice until it’s time to not be nice,” he instructs his fellow bouncers to a chorus of “Sweet!” from all male ticket holders. But what Tilghman doesn’t tell him in the 97 seconds from when they first meet to when Dalton accepts the job, is that the better part of Jasper wriggles under the thumb of maniacal millionaire Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara). Yes, when he’s not weaving over the center line to The Crew Cuts’ “Sh-boom,” Wesley extorts local businesses to line his pockets, his goon squad practically giggling by his side, as goon squads sometimes do.

Under the given scenario the movie is admittedly…entertaining. Notwithstanding their love of cliché, writers David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin are committed to that simple truth of both film and life, that seeing meatheads being put in their place is incredibly satisfying. And there are plenty of them. Once the Deuce regains its repute, gets a facelift and the house band (fronted by Jeff Healey, in a minor role) is able to play outside of its wire cage, said meatheads come hard with fists and knives, dispatched by Wesley. Odd guy. You’d think a man so hot to “gather unto me what is mine” would welcome success ~ as incentive for growth, to increase property values, that kind of thing. But all attempts to crack the “Road House” WTF code will only bring disappointment. Enjoy the sex and violence instead, the first a product of Dalton and small-town doctor Elizabeth “Doc” Clay (Kelly Lynch). From his mansion on the lake, Wesley can watch the two make nice on the roof of Dalton’s rented farmhouse, green with envy. The second, art a la fisticuffs, gets a boost of personality when Wade Garrett (Sam Elliot) arrives. As an aging, even more legendary bouncer and pal of Dalton’s, Elliot is…well, believable. Cool chemistry from here on in.

So what is it about this thing, a movie that sits at 40% on the Tomatometer and ranks 40th in domestic box-office grosses for 1989, a step ahead of the re-issue of “Peter Pan”? It did double its budget of $15 million however, something “The World’s End” has yet to match domestically and “Cocktail” did nearly 7 times over, a film with at least as much to poke fun at and far less consistency in its star’s hair (Cruise’s mop shifts back and forth between “Cocktail” and “Rain Man” throughout). Whatever. Numbers are for bean-counters and the folk who put raisins in breakfast cereal. Reviews, on the other hand, seem a more appropriate way to celebrate a 25th film anniversary. Here are a few:

‘Next to Dalton, Johnny Castle in ”Dirty Dancing” seems like Hamlet. Mr. Swayze does some dirty fighting here, but mostly the role requires a blank expression.’
Caryn James, New York Times

‘It’s a special kind of movie that can be so rote yet so riveting.’
David Medsker, Bullz-eye

‘Mindless entertainment of the highest order.’
NF, Time Out

‘”Road House” is startling because of the intensity of its violence and because of Swayze’s mindless posturing. A young star has sold himself to become a pinup boy.’
Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Violent, of course. “Road House” serves up the same ethics lesson featured in “Walking Tall” and “Pale Rider” ~ that bullies at the municipal level can only be properly handled with blunt force. But once Dalton tears out the throat of Wesley’s No.1 thug-boy Jimmy (Marshall Teague), the film even as delinquent entertainment collapses. Pushed to the breaking point, Dalton turns killer and gets away with it and we’re asked to believe that a closing shot of him and Doc frolicing in a swimming hole would make a happily-ever-after for either of them. The writers lost control of their own pet. Violence is one thing, violent death without consequence for a character like Dalton should have been something else.
As for Swayze, it’s somewhat disappointing that he took the part after inching his way to reinvention in “Dirty Dancing,” where the “pinup boy” Johnny Castle had more to do than draw blood. But as an actor with experience in roles that blend jock and streetwise big brother (“The Outsiders,” “Red Dawn”), he brings ~ dare I say it ~ credibility, to a film that’s lucky to have it. He’d bounce back with the critics in 1990 with “Ghost,” from Razzie nomination to Golden Globe contender in a year. What was Swayze’s impression of the finished film, I’d like to know. I suspect, more hope, that as a trained dancer Swayze was drawn to physicality over brutality and his character’s struggle to reconcile a talent for scrappin’ with a distaste for violence, hence Dalton’s twin admissions, “I’m only good at one thing, Doc. I never lose,” and “Nobody ever wins a fight.” If there was any deeper intent for the film, that ship has long since sailed. As eggheaded fantasy though, “Road House” has some gas. Even when it stinks it moves.