Road House: A Critical Analysis

I wrote this in 2009….Prior to the tragic passing of Patrick Swayze.  Reading this again reminds me of how much I enjoyed his movies.  Godspeed Patrick.

It’s tempting to look at Road House, the 1989 Patrick Swayze vehicle as the greatest film ever made. Hyperbole like that usually gets responses like, “What about Big Trouble in Little China, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Tapeheads, and Pootie Tang?”. To which I would have to respond…..”touché”.  

But clearly Road House deserves a spot with such heady company. Through every viewing I’m increasingly impressed with what director Rowdy Herrington, screenwriter David Lee Henry, and (of course) Patrick Swayze were able to accomplish in 114 minutes.

But first, a little history. In 1989, I was a film student in college. Oddly, this film never came up….surprising, as Point Break (Swayze’s last badass film) garnered quite a bit of pre-release buzz. Swayze had a sketchy film history. Awesome in Red Dawn, lame in Dirty Dancing, and a pussy in Uncommon Valor. Suffice it to say, a film starring a dancing bouncer at a honky-tonk didn’t really appeal to me, so I never watched it. In fact, from 1989 until 2006, I managed to completely avoid this film, even though I spent 3 years working at a video store (yes, I was Randall). At some point I did see Next of Kin, which is a deeply flawed, but supremely watchable film.

But throughout that time, a funny thing happened…..Road House started becoming part of our nation’s shared consciousness. I started hearing lines from the film quoted all over the place (there isn’t a high-school wrestler alive that hasn’t uttered the phrase, “pain don’t hurt”). So in late 2006, when I suddenly found myself single again with a ton of time on my hands, I found myself watching the movie.

I’m not going to summarize it, just make a couple of observations.

-This may be one of the best films you could show someone to explain the ’80s. Subtle, it ain’t, and neither were the ’80s. The characters (by and large) are broad, stereotypical strokes, yet they resonate with all of us. Swayze’s Dalton is Shane for the new generation. There’s the kind-hearted doctor, the troubled shopkeeper, the sagely farmer, the town baddie…..All familiar, and all present and accounted for.

-Swayze carries this film on his muscular, shaven shoulders. George Lucas is Shakespeare compared to David Lee Henry when it comes to writing dialog (see the aforementioned “pain don’t hurt”), but Swayze not only manages to read the words on the page, he sells them to the audience far better than a lesser actor could manage.

-Two words….Monster Truck. I’m a firm believer that there hasn’t been a film made that wouldn’t be exponentially better with the inclusion of at least one monster truck. Seriously, how awesome would it have been for Malcolm McDowell to pull up to an orgy in a monster truck in Caligula? Sure, it’d make some films a little creepier (Lolita), and it would present some narrative challenges in others (The Abyss and Event Horizon), but quite frankly, Event Horizon was so damn confusing, the addition of a monster truck really wouldn’t make it any more so.

-Direction. Rowdy Herrington really didn’t have much to do, and I’m thinking, “more Swayze” was pretty much his philosophy. Good on him, because it works. When the kindly old farmer (with the pants-crappingly awesome loft that Dalton lives in) spies Dalton doing his half-nude zen/yoga workout by a pond, the camera lingers disturbingly on Swayze’s body, and even more disturbingly so on the farmer’s face. The movie could have gone in several directions at that point….Be thankful it’s about bar fighting and not anything else.

-Sam Elliott. Just impossible to make a bad film with him in it, though there’s not much of him in the first hour (thank God for the monster truck). Oddly, Sammy looks older in this movie than he does now.

-Conflict…..Not just the fighting, the conflict within Dalton. He’s a bouncer…..With a philosophy degree from NYU. He’s ecstatic to rent a room with…”no phone, no TV, no conditioned air”……But he drives a Mercedes. He’s a pretty boy…….But he can kick everyone’s ass.

Now sure, people will say that Point Break is a better movie in every way. Nah……Point Break is great (even though it has an equally jaw-droppingly bad script), and except for the awesomeness quotient of their names, Kathryn Bigelow is a far superior director compared to Rowdy Herrington. But Point Break has two major strikes against it; the inclusion of Keanu Reeves, and the exclusion of any monster trucks.

Much like the Glickenhaus masterpieces (Sam Elliott’s Shakedown, Ken Wahl’s The Soldier, Scott Glenn’s Slaughter of the Innocents, and Chris Walken’s McBain), movies like this defy logic and common sense. They’re just not made any more, as there’s a need for some sort of resolution at the end of the final reel.

Quite frankly, I’d love to see a remake done with Swayze playing Elliott’s role.

No way it’d kick as much ass though.


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