Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Road House (1989)

Nothing says the 1980's like tight jeans, leg stockings, the music of A Flock of Seagulls, mullets, or a Members Only jacket. Whether it meant to or not, ROAD HOUSE (1989) starring the Swayze aka actor Patrick Swayze was the swan song or encore of the 1980's (you decide) and a bridge to a new decade  -- the 90's. Normally, I would have no interest in the Swayze. I wanted no part of his big hair, gyrating hips or muscular torso.  But my girlfriend at the time (now Mrs. CrazyFilmGuy) wanted to see DIRTY DANCING (1987) and I had run out of excuses. It turns out DIRTY DANCING was a nice film and the Swayze could do it all: dance, act, and sing.  That film turned my wife into a Swayze fan but I still wasn't a convert.

When ROAD HOUSE first came out, I still wanted no part of the Swayze even though this film had no dancing or singing (at least not by the Swayze). It just had fighting. Bar room fighting. Brawling. Bare knuckles. But a few years ago, I saw in the paper that a local comedy theater group was performing ROAD HOUSE (it has also been done Off-Broadway and as a fightsical).  That caught my eye. For a comedy troupe, even a local one, to honor a film by spoofing it, I knew there was only one reason. I call it the Aura of Swayze.

So I buckled down and watched ROAD HOUSE earlier this month. The Swayze already is a movie cult figure, regardless of what I think. Women the world over still swoon over his Johnny Castle in DIRTY DANCING and men can relate to his Zen bad guy Bodhi in POINT BREAK (1991). Add to the Swayze's resume the mysterious, psychology major Dalton (first name, last name - we just don't know), the best, baddest bouncer west of the Mississippi. There's just something about the Swayze. He's no Olivier or Hoffman. But he's so earnest in his acting. Every scene he's in, he gives it his all, 100% intensity, whether it's a fight scene or just driving a car or buying groceries.

ROAD HOUSE is directed by the aptly named Rowdy Herrington. The bar/club that Dalton works at is never called the Road House (the title is a nod and a wink to the Doors song Roadhouse Blues one of several songs blind blues singer Jeff Healey and his Band perform at the fictional Double Deuce club). It's an unusual film for producer Joel Silver who found success with big action films like LETHAL WEAPON (1987), PREDATOR (1987), and DIE HARD (1988). ROAD HOUSE has action (exploding houses, Monster Trucks crushing smaller cars at a used car lot, the Swayze tackling a man off of a moving motorcycle) but it's mostly redneck fighting, a healthy dose of bare breasts, and the Swayze.

ROAD HOUSE kicks off at a different club called Band Stand as Frank Tilghman (Kevin Tighe) shows up to persuade Dalton (Patrick Swayze), the best cooler/bouncer in the Midwest to leave his current job and come join his new up and coming club the Double Deuce. Faster than you can say parachute pants, Dalton accepts the offer.

When he arrives in Jasper, Missouri, Dalton discovers the Double Deuce is in need of a makeover. The Deuce is a rundown road house, full of hard drinking rednecks and peckerheads. It's the Wild West with a barroom brawl every few minutes, one OSHA incident from being shut down. The current employees either deal drugs or like bartender Pat McGurn (X's John Doe) swipe from the till. Dalton cleans house, removing the troublemakers and teaching the remaining staff and bouncers how to deal with the clientele. But Dalton runs afoul of the local rich kingpin Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara) who extorts from the local businesses for his protection like Red Webster's (Red West) auto parts store and controls all the liquor distribution in town.

As the Double Deuce begins to make a profit, Wesley sends in his #1 goon Jimmy (Marshall Teague)and his boys to remind Dalton and Tilghman who's boss. Dalton and his bouncers win the first round but Dalton is injured. A trip to the local hospital introduces Dalton to Elizabeth Clay aka Doc (Kelly Lynch) the hottest looking emergency room doctor south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Dalton even carries his own medical records to assist her. Wesley tries to buy Dalton's loyalty but Dalton isn't a man to be bought. He lives by his own rules, his own code. When Wesley sends his goons around a second time to stir up trouble at the Deuce, Dalton's mentor and buddy Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott) shows up in the nick of time to help Dalton distribute some round house kicks and solar plexus punches.

Wesley puts the hammer down on Dalton.  He blows up the house Dalton is renting from neighbor Emmet (Sunshine Parker). He has his thugs torch Red's hardware store. I was wondering where the local authorities were to arrest Wesley but then I remembered Wesley has the police in his back pocket as well. It's only inevitable that Dalton and Jimmy face off in a martial arts battle to the death, shirtless, torsos glistening with sweat, trying to make us forget the beach volleyball scene in TOP GUN (1986) or as I like to call it Maverick versus Iceman. Dalton has his showdown with Wesley at Wesley's compound, a battle to the death in Wesley's trophy room, big game heads mounted on the walls. What other film will you see a giant stuffed polar bear crush a man? But Dalton will not become Wesley's latest trophy.

At its simplest (and ROAD HOUSE isn't very deep), ROAD HOUSE is an old fashioned modern western with Dalton like the cowboy hero SHANE (1953) arriving into a new town (in this case the Double Deuce) and cleaning up the filth and scum that have taken it over. Dalton carries with him a troubled past (he killed a man in Memphis). Dalton tries to stay out of trouble but trouble has a way of finding him. Wesley is like the corrupt cattle baron, using his wealth and power and henchmen to extort the local businessmen and terrorize the town. Instead of a climactic gunfight between two gunslingers, Dalton and Jimmy duke it out a more modern way with fist, feet, and fingers. ROAD HOUSE'S finale is satisfying as the townspeople (represented by four businessmen Wesley extorted or terrorized) band together to help Dalton defeat Wesley and his posse. Everyone may have 80's hair and clothes but deep down, ROAD HOUSE is a western.

What often sends a film like ROAD HOUSE into the realm of cult classic are quotable (although not always profound) lines of dialogue. Screen writers David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin provide ample examples. Dalton's rules to his team: "One, never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected. Two, take it outside. Never start anything inside the bar unless it's absolutely necessary. And three, be nice." Dalton's philosophy on his trade: "Nobody ever wins a fight."  Dalton's quotes don't always make sense but would you question a guy who can rip your throat out with his fingers? Bad guy Jimmy may regret opening up too much to Dalton during their climactic battle: "I used to fuck guys like you in prison." A running joke in the film (borrowing a similar line from 1981'S ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) is people's pre-conceived perceptions of the famous bouncer Dalton. "I thought you'd be bigger." Writers Henry and/or Henkin must have worked in a bar or club and saw and heard some of these incidents first hand.

ROAD HOUSE has an eclectic supporting cast. Kelly Lynch as Dalton's love interest Doc is a nice choice. Lynch caught my attention in Gus Van Sant's DRUGSTORE COWBOY (1989) which came out the same year. She had dark brown hair in that film. Lynch was the It girl in the early 90's, showing up in several films. Originally a fashion model, Lynch's career never quite took off although she was a better actress than most models i.e. Lauren Hutton. Sam Elliott as Wade Garrett is Dalton's father figure, a symbol of what Dalton could become if he doesn't get out of the bouncer business. Elliott always brings an element of cool to his performances (check out MASK or THE BIG LEBOWSKI).

At times, Ben Gazzara plays bad guy Brad Wesley like Bing Crosby possessed by a Dixie gangster. At other times (like frolicking with young babes at his pool), Wesley appears like a sinister Hugh Hefner. It may be hard to watch Gazzara who starred in director John Cassavettes edgy independent films like HUSBANDS (1970) or THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976) selling out in such a high profile B movie but an actor has to work right? Gazzara seems to be enjoying himself.

I remember Kevin Tighe as Roy Desoto, firefighter/paramedic and the other half to Randolph Mantooth from my childhood TV drama EMERGENCY. Tighe had a renaissance after that show playing mostly villains in films like EIGHT MEN OUT (1988) but it's nice to see him play a good guy again as the Double Deuce's owner Tighlman. And although Swayze, Lynch, and Elliott all have some big hair in ROAD HOUSE, I proclaim the winner to be the gorgeous Julie Michaels as Denise, Wesley's current girlfriend and femme fatale who stokes the fire with an outrageous strip tease at the Double Deuce.

ROAD HOUSE plays up the Swayze's success in DIRTY DANCING and the Swayze's sex symbol status, finding every opportunity it can to have Swayze's shirt off.  Director Herrington stages a slow dance between Dalton and Doc that feels DIRTY DANCING-ish. Music obviously plays a role in ROAD HOUSE with Jeff Healey (playing Cody) and his Band providing music at the Double Deuce (there's a nice opening performance by the Cruzados with Tito Larriva at the Bandstand too).  Rock star John Doe (from one of my favorite bands X) has a role as Wesley's troubled nephew Pat and Red West who plays a guy named Red was part of Elvis Presley's inner circle and bodyguard for awhile.

There's no question ROAD HOUSE is cheesy. But everyone in the film seems to understand that the story is all in good fun. And I found myself rooting for the Swayze, who doesn't seem to take himself too seriously. ROAD HOUSE doesn't fall into the pantheon of great films like CITIZEN KANE or LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but if you're looking for some light entertainment that won't tax your brain and has some quotable lines you can try out in real life, ROAD HOUSE might be the kickass film for you to check out.

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