Road House (1989)
Dir. by Rowdy Herrington
Starring Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch and Ben Gazzara
Dalton, a professional bouncer, is recruited by a nightclub owner from a small town in Missouri to help clean up the bar’s image. Installed as the new manager of the rowdy Double Deuce, he goes to work breaking up fights and installing new rules. He eventually runs afoul of the corrupt businessman Brad Wesley, who controls most of the town through extortion and intimidation. The conflict between Dalton and Wesley escalates until it becomes an all-out war, with the bar and town caught in the crossfire.
This is another movie that I actually hadn’t seen in full before this viewing. I’d heard a lot about it, and knew the basic premise beforehand, but I doubt that I’d seen more than a couple of scenes previously.
The movie’s premise, boiled down to basics, is a pretty standard trope from both westerns and samurai films. Lone gunslinger/swordsman comes into a town run by a corrupt businessman and single-handedly cleans it up. But here, it’s been buried in about 20 tons of 1980s Velveeta. Instead of a gunfighter, we get a wandering bouncer, who’s somehow famous enough to have name recognition in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere (there are bartenders who are that famous, but I doubt any bouncers unless a WWE star decided to moonlight). And he doesn’t use guns, but instead rips people’s throats out with his bare hands. All while spouting philosophy and wonderful quotes like “Pain don’t hurt.”
It’s the sort of role that I could have easily seen Steven Seagal playing. What made them cast Patrick Swayze, then known primarily for Dirty Dancing, I don’t know. He’d done a couple of action movies before, most notably the original version of Red Dawn. But he definitely doesn’t fit the mold of the legendary tough guy that Dalton is hyped up to be. Maybe that was the point, though. Make Dalton not look the part, so that it’s more impressive when he busts heads. In that case, though, they should have fully committed and cast someone really against type, like Jeff Goldblum or Christopher Lloyd.
The villain is also a major weakness of the movie. In most modern takes on this Western trope, the town is being run by a drug dealer or mobster, someone with an obvious criminal enterprise to protect. Here, Brad Wesley seems to run the town purely because he’s rich and petty. Sure, we see him sending his goons to extort various local businesses, but I never got the sense that Wesley himself was any sort of an actual threat. Yes, he’s an asshole, but being a rich dick isn’t quite enough of a bad guy resume for me.
The weakness of the villains is never so glaringly apparent as it is in the big action climax. Dalton goes to get revenge for the killing of his mentor (an excellent but under-used Sam Elliott), and takes down Wesley’s entire complex single-handedly. The sequence starts promisingly enough, with a driverless car being used as an explosive distraction. But then Dalton eliminates all of the goons without much of a fight, mostly off-screen. For a movie billed as an action film, there’s surprisingly little actual action outside of bar fights.
Now, it might sound like I really didn’t like the movie so far. And taken at face value, it’s not quite the pinnacle of 1980s action filmmaking. But the movie’s saving grace is in just how ridiculous everything is. Every scene in the Double Deuce bar feels like they took all the dive bar cliches in the writing handbook, mixed them together and turned all the dials up to 11. If any real bar had half the shit going on as you see here, it’d have multiple cop cars on permanent detail outside the place.
So yeah, not a good movie by any objective critical standards. However, as a choice for a “bad movie” night with some friends and some beers, it’s almost perfect. Therefore, I’m going to split the difference and give the movie a B.
-I did appreciate the detail of Dalton buying a crappy used car to drive around that could absorb all of the retaliation from angry customers. I can’t see an actual bouncer oiling up to do shirtless tai chi at dawn, but I could see the security at a dive bar wanting to avoid the expensive new vehicles.
-Seriously, “Pain don’t hurt” is a line I’d expect from Jesse Ventura in Predator. Patrick Swayze isn’t anywhere badass enough to pull it off.
-The Double Deuce’s blind bandleader is played by actual blind blues musician Jeff Healey, who managed to parlay his appearance here into a string of US and Canadian rock radio hits over the next couple of years.