Road House (1989)


When you mention any '80s film there is inevitably rumors that a remake is in the works.  Not surprising, as even '90s movies seem fair game right now, and certain franchises, like Spiderman and Batman, seem to get rebooted every few years.  The problem is that certain movies can only belong in the time period they were made.  It has nothing to do with quality, but simply the fact that certain genre films only work in the era they were made.

The '80s contain many of these, and one of the foremost being action films.  Yes, the first two Expendables movies were fun, but they still felt like modern action films.  All the old guys get together for one more round.  It still feels way too much like, "Remember when?"  And, yes, many of us remember when rather clearly.

That doesn't mean I remember everything fondly.  At the time Road House came out I consider Patrick Swayze another up-and-coming pretty boy without much substance.  I was forced to watch Dirty Dancing at one point in a film class, and absolutely hated it - not because of Swayze, but just because it's an awful movie.  Unfortunately, seeing that, at the time, he normally starred in action films like Road House and Next of Kin didn't help my opinion.  We remember many of these action quite fondly now, but at the time they were being churned out like superhero films are today.  They made money, but many were quite laughable and had the same plots over and over.  They evolved somewhat in the early 1990s, but the typical '80s action film you may picture died out quite the same reason slasher films did.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I am one of the few people my age that somehow never saw Road House when it came out.  Yes, I was only 17, but it was on video within a year, so I had plenty of chances. So, for my 46th birthday, it was time to sit back and enjoy this cinematic masterpiece that I had somehow missed out on. And, no, that's not sarcasm.

Dalton (Patrick Swayze) is the lead bouncer at a New York club.  One night Tilghman (Kevin Tighe), the owner of a bar called the Double Deuce, comes in to offer Dalton the job of cleaning up his bar.  Recently coming into money, he hopes to take the small-town Missouri honky-tonk from one of the worst establishments in the state to a respectable club.  The price being right, Dalton departs for the Show-Me State.

Upon arriving, he finds the bar in a shambles.  Their current bouncer is a violent thug, waitresses are dealing drugs to the patrons and Pat the bartender (John Doe) is stealing money from the till.  Dalton immediately makes himself unpopular by convincing Tilghman to make some personnel changes.  Unfortunately, Pat happens to be the nephew of Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), the local millionaire who owns the town and makes shop owners pay him protection through a series of legal maneuvers.  His authority is enforced through his posse of hired goons, led by the deadly Jimmy (Marshall R. Teague).

Pat's firing doesn't go well with Wesley, but Dalton makes it clear that throwing his weight around the Double Deuce isn't going to do Wesley any good.  This leads to an escalation of attacks against Dalton and anyone in town that would stand with him.  The situation is exacerbated when Dalton begins a relationship with Doc (Kelly Lynch), an ER doctor that helps patch him up after one particular bad fight.  The niece of local car parts dealer Red Webster (Red West), she is also an old flame of Wesley's.

Eventually, as Dalton begins to care more about the town and the people in it and considers putting down roots, his mentor Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott) shows up to both assist and try to talk some sense into him.  By the time he has arrived, though, things have reached a boiling point between Dalton and Wesley, and it is obvious that the end result may be tragic for everyone involved.

In case you only know this movie from a Family Guy episode, Swayze doesn't go around round-kicking everything.  In fact, the way he handles some of the bigger heavies is quite a bit more visceral.  That is one of the things that struck me; the movie is not afraid to get brutal, which is something not too out of character for the 1980s.  Action films of the time were in no way subtle, so every time there is a chance for a fight to occur, it does.  Also, it was enjoyable to watch some of the stunts, even though I don't think it was always enjoyable for the stuntmen, as the guy in charge of pyrotechnics seemed to have gone for overkill, but forgot to tell everyone, including the director.

Besides the gratuitous violence, there is also plenty of gratuitous nudity.  This all adds up to something that should be an unwatchable mess, but director Rowdy Herrington managed to herd the mob of cats that is the script and come up with one heck of a movie.  It never takes itself too seriously, but also doesn't get self-referential.  It is obvious that all the leads are there because they want to be.  While an injury that Patrick Swayze suffered in the film (most of the actors did their own stunts, and Swayze actually trained prior to the movie) led to his huge success in Ghost, his acting skill was apparent in Dirty Dancing (I didn't say I hate that film because of him), and he could have sleepwalked his way through Road House.  Instead, he still gives the character, as much as another turn on Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" as any other similar movie, all that he's got.

I also give a lot of credit to Ben Gazzara as the main heavy, with his understated menace and total lack of morals.  Even better is Marshall Teague as his right-hand man Jimmy.  Teague, in his ultimate fight scene with Swayze, goes completely crazy with the role, overacting and spitting out ridiculous dialogue in such a way that it is one of the greatest villain performances of the time.  Screenwriters these days should take some notes on how to do villains right.

Sam Elliott largely gets to be Sam Elliott, and it is fitting that he turns up, as this is largely a western updated to the '80s.  Kelly Lynch serves as the romantic interest and as the lightning rod for much of what happens later in the film.  I do agree that the sparks really don't fly on-screen between her and Swayze, but she's written the same way as the "hooker with a heart of gold" would be if this were a traditional western - surprisingly, though, they gave her a respectable job.  She is still largely a plot convenience like most women were in these films, if they showed up at all.

It is a movie that deserves the cult following it has received, and it helps that it is separated now from a lot of the horrible films that framed it at the time.  While it is refreshing to see how well Road House holds up after all these years, it is very much a product of its time.  There was a direct-to-video sequel, made by and starring no one involved in this, and a stage play featuring Taimak from The Last DragonWhat it doesn't need is a remake, as it would probably end up being a sanitized, PG-13 money grab.  The last rumor was that a version was proposed with Ronda Rousey in the lead, but thankfully that has gone by the wayside.  Truth is, Hollywood, for better or worse, doesn't know how to make a movie like this anymore, nor should they try.

Road House (1989)
Time: 114 minutes
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara
Director: Rowdy Herrington

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