CULT CORNER: Road House (1989)

Patrick Swayze is the ultimate bar “cooler” in this testosterone-riddled 80s favourite. Richard gives it another look. 

Who made it?: Rowdy Herrington (Director), R. Lance Hill, Hilary Henkin (Writers), Joel Silver (Producer), Silver Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara, Marshall R. Teague.

Tagline: “Dalton lives like a loner, fights like a professional. And loves like there’s no tomorrow.”

IMDb rating: 6.5/10.

The year was 1989 and things were… let’s say, quite different. The roaring 80s were slowly dying down, and Die Hard had already given the world a taste of what the next wave of American action cinema would look like. But some people don’t make films in acknowledgment of changing trends or developing tastes. Some people look upon a slowly sinking ship and, rather than head for the lifeboats, they crack their knuckles, put on a cheap facsimile captain’s hat, and declare that, until the water reaches the roof, it’s open bar. Such a man was the magnificently-named former gaffer and electrician, Rowdy Herrington. Rather than allow the 80s to go quietly into the night, he instead gave the world the cinematic equivalent of a “greatest hits” album. Patrick Swayze shirtless, check. Monster trucks, check. Bar fights, check. Manly mullets, double-check. Sam Elliot with his hair in a man bun… that’s a big 80s check.

If that small list is not enough to convince you that this movie must be watched as soon as possible, with liberal access to tequila close at hand, then allow me to give you the short form. Swayze is “Dalton”, the best cooler in the business. You let him take over your bar, train your bouncers, and droves of the decade’s coolest kids will soon be knocking down your door. He comes armed with a degree in philosophy, a complete control over his own sense of pain, a nondescript mixture of martial arts and sweaty tai chi, and lest we forget, his oh so tight t-shirts. On attempting to clean up a bar, he runs afoul of the town’s short, old  crime lord and his many henchman, and it’s up to Dalton to clean house!

This review could simply end there. I doubt I will ever have cause again to write such an utterly bizarre series of statements, unless I eventually get around to reviewing the 1988 classic Dead Heat. Road House is an amalgamation of everything that made the era’s cinema so utterly entertaining and preposterous, and I personally adore this film. On occasion, when I feel my mood is low, I will put it on just to enjoy some of its many highlights. Be it big baddie bruiser Morgan, played by Terry Funk (who named these people?!), lifting a man above his head like the Incredible Hulk, or stating the immortal words, “They said you had balls big enough to come in a dump truck.” Or even just marveling at the menace generated by little Ben Gazzara as the big bad, Brad Wesley. This movie has it all.

While Herrington won that year’s Razzie for Worst Director, I feel it was somewhat undeserved. This movie finds a strange place between silliness and pretension that functions to carry the whole thing along. Dalton is as a character entirely too serious, but he is matched with wisecracking Wade Garret (Elliot) and the small gang of comedy bouncers under their command. Similarly, the story is spookily reminiscent of the western classic Shane, but considering one of the inciting incidents in Road House involves “when a car dealership meets a monster truck”, it’s safe to say the parallel is not exactly a strong one. It’s not just flash and hairspray, though, as it does have twinges of a real heart deep down. The serious moments between Swayze and Elliot bear some real dramatic weight, as does the budding romance between Swayze and Kelly Lunch’s “Doc.” This is a cast of silly stereotypes, but once you get past the obviousness, you find yourself rooting for the good guys and punching the air when the baddies hit the dirt.

While perhaps not having much of a story arc or development, the film doesn’t fall into the trap of making its heroes unlikable. In some ways, the film is admirable in its ambition. The bar fights are big and sweeping, and the action choreography is utterly unrealistic but great fun. The soundtrack is provided by blind blues icon Jeff Healy and his band (the blind bluesman shown playing in the film, in fact). While it may never be accused of being a smart movie, Road House knows exactly what it wants to be and, for all intents and purposes, achieves its aims.

“So bad it’s good” gets thrown around a great deal these days when describing movies, but it’s here in the heyday of silly action green-lit on star power and narcotics that we get the true cream of that crop. I should hate this film for its almost impossible stupidity. The madness is so extreme as to be almost a parody of 80s cinema, and yet it is delivered with the absolute sincerity of a Mark Wahlberg performance; perhaps that is why I find it so endearing? It’s dumb but determined, wanting so badly to be all that it can be and resisting every urge to wink at the camera in acknowledgement of its ridiculousness. The existence of an infamous, nationally-known bar bouncer is never questioned, and the bizarre mixture of fight and philosophy that is Dalton is never laughed at but rather embraced. Anything of a similar nature made today would be a self-referential satire, but in 1989, we got something so silly… it was serious.

Best Scene

Dalton doing what Dalton does.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • At one point, Patrick Swayze was approached to star in Predator 2 (1990) but was unable to because he was injured during the filming of this movie.
  • According to Kelly Lynch, whenever Bill Murray sees her sex scene with Swayze on television, he calls her husband, Mitch Glazer, to tease him about it.
  • The band playing at the start of the movie is Cruzados. After the band disbanded, lead singer Tito Larriva formed the band Tito & Tarantula, which is the band that plays at the Titty Twister in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996).
  • An off-Broadway production of this film was produced in 2003. It had the peculiarly excessively long title of “Road House: The Stage Version Of The Cinema Classic That Starred Patrick Swayze, Except This One Stars Taimak From The 80’s Cult Classic The Last Dragon (1985) Wearing A Blonde Mullet Wig.”
  • The Special Edition Region 1 DVD included commentary by fans and fimmaking duo Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier.

Richard Herring

Half-American, half-Norwegian. All Engineer, amateur filmmaker, former Scuba Diver, qualified Forklift Operator, continual Stand Up Comedian, and Certified Cinephile.

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