The 80’s were a massive decade for action movies. I mean, the Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Rambo series were born, and huge crossover franchises like The Terminator and Indiana Jones came to fruition. However, there is one piece of 80’s action lore that stands on a different level. 1989’s Road House, a character study that ends up being an insane American kung fu epic. Strange how these things work out…
The lead in Road House is the late screen icon Patrick Swayze. He plays a fella named Dalton, a guy shrouded in mystery who has only a few known characteristics. Number one: when a bar needs “cooling” he’s the guy to call. Number two: you don’t want to be on his bad side. And number three: he may or may not have killed a guy by ripping his throat out in the past. Dalton is recruited to come on out to Jasper, Missouri to “cool” a bar called the Double Deuce. For those wondering what “cool” means I wish I could explain, but it’s never concretely defined. Combine a bouncer with a manager with a doorman? There could have been several other duties he could’ve been performing off screen for all we know, apparently he graduated from NYU. This is Dalton’s movie. However, a few other people do show up. For one, there’s Brad Wesley played by the late Ben Gazzara. He essentially owns Jasper and drains its local business owners of all of their income in an effort to build his own empire. He employs a crew of characterless goons that more or less do his bidding without question, one of whom happens to be pro wrestling icon Terry Funk. After a routine beating at the Double Deuce we are introduced to Dr. Elizabeth Clay, played by the stiff and leather faced Kelly Lynch. Dalton quickly falls for Clay for whatever reason. Not much else to say about that. And finally, rounding out the ensemble is Dalton’s mentor and friend Wade Garrett (eh-hem WWE fans) played expertly by Sam Elliott, who at one point exposes his pubic hair. What is with action movies hiring good actors to breathe life into their movies in minor roles? Is this a recurring theme throughout the genre? Oh, and there are also a handful of townspeople that factor into this. Dr. Clay’s uncle owns an autobody shop, there’s a car salesman, the fellow that rents out his farm to Dalton, a blind guitarist, and a handful of bartenders, patrons and bouncers that serve little roles in the film.
There’s trouble at the Double Deuce. It has a terrible reputation and fights break out every night. The bouncers thrive off of tossing customers through tables, smashing bottles and just revelling in the chaos. There are bartenders that skim the register, and others that sell drugs in the bathrooms. When Dalton steps in, he quickly puts his foot down on this behavior, which is the first act that catches the eye of Brad Wesley, whose nephew is fired from his bartending gig at the Double Deuce for taking a few too many dollars from the register. Essentially the entire movie is just a daytime scene where Dalton either pisses off Wesley or meets up with a friend, followed by a nighttime scene where there’s a barfight up until the very end. Dalton’s jobs pissing off Wesley include the aforementioned firing of his nephew, winning the heart of Dr. Clay for whom he loved, and trying to make the Double Deuce thrive, regardless of the attempts made to stop that.
Now this movie is most well known for its last half hour or so. Once Dalton has been tormented a great deal by Wesley, he enlists the help of Garrett to help him through it, that’s when things get good. Up until that point however, this movie is just straight up bad. And not just bad in general, but bad on every level. The action is repetitive. Swayze stops bar fights. Bottles get broken, knives are pulled, etc. There’s nothing worth noting in any of the early action sequences aside from maybe Swayze’s stance and martial arts moves. Speaking of martial arts, the movie really spends an awful lot of time focusing on Swayze, eh-hem, Dalton’s physique and workouts. There are three sequences that include him working out in some form or another, one of which is watched from across a lake by the maniacal Wesley (who also watches him fornicate atop his roof as well). But the last act does kick into high gear, in a sense that it throws caution to the wind. Dalton is challenged, and he never loses. There are several fires that are caused by Wesley’s main goon Jimmy, who looks forward to sparring with the great Dalton. These two actually have a pretty entertaining fight on the beach that separates Dalton’s barn from Wesley’s estate. You can guess who wins. Dalton then proceeds to demolish the rest of the goons in boring ways and then Wesley’s fate is in the hands of the D-Man himself. One thing that must be noted, and is actually the only legitimately good act in the filmmaking is the inclusion of Dalton ripping out a throat. They do a decent job of having barflys mumble, “I heard he ripped a guys throat out.” to the point where in every fight I found myself saying, “Will a throat get ripped?” The Saturday Night Live flick MacGruber pays loving tribute to this. Overall the action is generic until push comes to shove, which even then relies a lot on big moments lodged between boring kills.
Brad Wesley is easily the best part of this film. This antagonist shows exactly how little effort went into making this movie anything more than 90 minutes of Patrick Swayze showing off his skills and rockin’ bod. Wesley is like the old version of Francis, Pee-Wee Herman’s enemy in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. He’s goofy, stupid, and has all the money in the world. I mean, the first sequence we see him in, he’s flying a helicopter over Swayze’s barn with a tooth eating grin smeared across his face, and the second scene he’s in he’s driving maniacally, probably drunkenly through the road singing gleefully. And instead of having Dalton shot the second he starts screwing things up for him around Jasper, he plays along with Dalton’s games and ends up destroying several local businesses just to prove his dominance. Road House should be the story of an eccentric billionaire in Wesley, not in the boring and overly cool Dalton.
One thing this movie is full of is hilarious one-liners. If there is one reason to watch this movie from front to back, it’s to hear the ridiculous stuff that writers David Lee Henry and Hillary Henkin (WHAT a female co-wrote this?) put in the script. We get zingers like “Time to drain the main vein.” “I used to fuck guys like you in prison.” and “Pain don’t hurt.” among several others that I will allow you to see on your own if you so choose to watch this.
I must admit. Road House is not worth the time. Having friends around, or maybe a mind altering substance, may make this movie can be infinitely more enjoyable. But it’s a lot of tension built up to have lackluster fight scenes. The one liners, Sam Elliot and the absurdity of Brad Wesley are the only real reasons to watch this flick. Even in the realm of ‘so bad it’s good’ flicks, Road House is barely par of the course. I know I’ll catch a lot of flack for that, maybe I’ll even get my throat ripped out. I’m ready for it.
So…what do I conquer next? Do I leap to one of the franchises I listed up top? Nah, let’s just say the next flick rhymes with The Funclown.
ADDED TO THE RANKINGS: Patrick Swayze, Sam Elliott
(All images and video are copyright Silver Pictures)