|Road House (1989)
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara
Director: Rowdy Herrington
“Road House” is the mother of all stop signs for channel surfers everywhere. No matter how far along the movie is when you stumble upon it, you will put the remote down and watch it to its completion. And why is that, exactly? Sure, I’m giving the movie four stars, but I’m also the first to admit that it’s not terribly well made, or well acted for that matter. So what is it about “Road House” that inspires such admiration? The fights? The sex? The Zen philosophy? The homoerotic subtext? (More on that later.) That’s right, you may not have realized it at the time, but “Road House,” for all its manly manliness, is also really, really gay.
Patrick Swayze stars as Dalton, a “cooler” (a bouncer whose main responsibility is to diffuse nasty situations) who’s hired by Frank (Kevin Tighe) to come up to the podunk town of Jasper to clean up his redneck bar the Double Deuce. Dalton drives up to check the place out, and knows he has his work cut out for him. The cocktail waitress is dealing drugs, the bartender is skimming from the till, and half the patrons are fighting. Dalton takes the job, instantly drawing the ire of the staff despite his relatively simple rules (“Be nice”), but the staff’s nightly rampages on Dalton’s car (he keeps a spare set of tires in the trunk) are the least of his worries: his no-nonsense demeanor ruffles the feathers of Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), a business thug that essentially owns Jasper and all of its businessmen. Things get even more complicated when a dust-up at the bar sends Dalton to the emergency room, where he meets Dr. Elizabeth Clay (Kelly Lynch), who happens to be Wesley’s ex.
There is not one moment in “Road House” that will surprise you. The corrupt members of the staff will swear their revenge on Dalton, but never get it. The bar will slowly become safe, respectable, and the hottest place in town. Dalton will bag the only non-white trash babe in Jasper (against an uneven brick wall, no less). Wesley will try to buy Dalton, then proceed to ruin his life when Dalton says no. There will be a final showdown between Dalton and Wesley. All of that is preordained in the first 10 minutes. And there you are, glued to the TV, hanging on the edge of every roundhouse kick and bare breast. It’s a special kind of movie that can be so rote yet so riveting.
Swayze, despite a well-coiffed ‘80s mullet that would seem to be too high maintenance for a fighting man, is perfectly cast as Dalton. You actually believe that he could have a degree in philosophy, even when he spouts nuggets of wisdom like “Pain don’t hurt.” Everyone else in the movie, save Lynch, exists either to be kicked or ogled (hello, Julie Michaels, a very successful stuntwoman who sports fantastic helmet hair and a rack to match). The movie’s secret weapon, though, is Sam Elliott as Wade Garrett, Dalton’s mentor. His unflappable nature, even when he’s getting his ass kicked, is irresistible.
Okay, now back to the whole gay thing. Thank goodness this is addressed on one of the audio commentaries, but then again, you know that Kevin Smith (who, along with producing partner Scott Mosier, received an invitation to do a commentary track after discussing “Road House” in detail on a commentary for the tenth anniversary DVD for “Clerks”) would never let something like that go unaddressed. Swayze’s hairless chest glistens in the evening sun as he works on his Tai Chi. It glistens as he boxes against a board in the barn. The bouncer that’s caught banging a girl in the backroom is completely naked, while the girl he’s doing has most of her clothes on. Shot after shot after shot of longing look from one man to another. “For Christ’s sake, put a fucking shirt on!” Smith says eventually. Sweet Jesus, is this movie gay.
And that, like “Top Gun,” is part of its secret beauty. It goes to such great lengths to establish its manhood that it doesn’t even realize that it’s protesting too much (sort of like Tom Cruise mashing Michelle Monaghan’s face whenever he kisses her in “Mission: Impossible III”). But no bother: “Road House” still offers a strange kind of release, the feeling of winning a bar fight without feeling like you’ve been tenderized. Or, as Dalton would say, it’s pain that don’t hurt.
Aside from the hilarious commentary from Smith and Mosier, there is a commentary from director Rowdy Herrington and a “What Would Dalton Do?” featurette, where bouncers and coolers discuss the movie and its forays into cinematic license. “On the Road House” is better, featuring current interviews with Swayze, Lynch, Herrington and Marshall Teague (the one that loses his throat) talking about the movie’s longevity and impact.