Editors’ note: Though the Rental Rehab girls love waxing philosophic about the meaning of Chuck Norris’ chest hair and the scientific flaws in earthquake films, we don’t want to hog all the fun. That’s why we occasionally hand off our duties to a guest columnist. Today, we happily welcome first-time RR reviewer, Joshua. Joshua has a philosophy degree from Northwestern University with a concentration on Plato as well as the logical positivists. He is also an amateur Thai boxer.
Roadhouse (1989) – Dir. Rowdy Harrington
There are movies that are so brazenly stupid that they require new methods of critical interpretation. Like Scientology or Ron Paul, their disavowal of reality and its conventions is so inescapably complete, so utterly confident, that these films approach a sort of ludicrous grandeur.
Sylvester Stallone in Cobra (1986), David Carradine in Death Race 2000 (1975), and Sean Connery in Zardoz (1974) – all performances in movies that were so balls-numbingly piss poor that they transcended themselves, their gut-twisting awfulness somehow taking on the sins of the audience and thereby redeeming all of us. Road House is one such movie, and Patrick Swayze is its Christ.
Frustrated by repeated typecasting in “beefcake” roles, Swayze somehow found himself in this epic showcase of well-oiled manliness, playing a dour warrior-sage who is forbidden from ever fully buttoning his pants. After the near-cult-like reception of Dirty Dancing (1987), what could have convinced him to take this on? Had he read the script? Did he know that the director’s first name was “Rowdy”? Was he aware the movie called for very little dancing? History doesn’t tell us the reasons, but once The Swayze committed to playing Dalton, the “Cooler” of the eponymous establishment, he was in it with all due seriousness and nads fucking deep.
And what a supporting cast! Sam Elliot – playing Wade Garrett, Dalton’s mentor – rides onto the set looking as if he’d run into the crew by mistake on his way to a different, hopefully better movie. Swayze may be the lead, but Elliot’s fantastic mane of hair is the real star of this picture.
Ben Gazzara, smiling his way through the role of chief villain Brad Wesley as if bravely soldiering through a hemorrhoidectomy, appears to have prepared for his role by smoking pharmaceutical grade Mary Jane before every shot.
Even Kelly Lynch, sex object and token female presence, is demoted from emergency room doctor to whining, table cloth-trussed piece of ass in just three scenes.
With Red Dawn (1984), Dirty Dancing, and Point Break (1991), Road House completes the Gospel of The Swayze. It is a movie that could only have been shot during the waning days of the Reagan presidency, with its frankly libertarian themes, flagrant Christ figure, and poorly veiled homo-eroticism. The plot is simple: Dalton is hired by a bar owner with aspirations (played in high jollity by Kevin Tighe) to clean up his crazy bar, the Double Deuce.
Dalton arrives in town mid-bar fight, and proceeds to take control of the situation with a mixture of hard-assed employee management and lawsuit-grade beatings. Before long he runs afoul of the local crime magnate, Wesley, putting in motion a train of events as predictable as the run-up to every Nintendo title’s final Boss Fight.
He acquires a bespectacled love interest in the person of “Doc,” mostly as a pretext for delivering bizarre, hyper-masculine one-liners. Exposed breasts and a monster truck make their appearance. In the few scenes where his lifestyle is questioned, Dalton answers with empty platitudes about pain, courage, and “standing up” for the little guy. Since we’ve been told he graduated from NYU with a degree in philosophy, I’d advise aspiring lovers of wisdom to make their college applications elsewhere.
Above everything, Road House is a story of star-crossed lovers, doing everything they can to consummate their passion in the face of adversity and a host of foes. I am of course speaking of the torrid romance between Dalton and Wesley. Dalton’s spiritual advancement via progressive bar fights is in reality the steady disposal of romantic rivals for Wesley’s affection.
Of course Wade Garrett dies – he has to be killed, because it is the only way to sever the rich bromance between himself and Dalton. So too with the most lethal of Wesley’s underlings, Jimmy. Marshall Teague knew what he was doing when he played this bug-eyed lackey as little more than a constant coke-induced hard on, so it’s a shame when he gives the whole game away with the most eyebrow-raising line in motion picture history:
I used to fuck guys like you in prison!
And how! When Dalton and Wesley finally meet in battle, you can bet it’s a sweaty affair. After several thrown spears and overturned white leather chairs, the fight ends with Wesley in submission, Dalton kneeling on his crotch with his de-throating hand aloft. One can’t help but be reminded of Auden’s poem on Herman Melville:
And every time they meet the same thing has to happen;
It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover
And has to pick a quarrel and succeeds,
And both are openly destroyed before our eyes.
On the scale of homo-erotic American cinema, Road House ranks well above Brokeback Mountain (2005) for sexual tension, but the lack of catty flirting keeps it from being quite as openly gay as Top Gun (1986).
In addition to porn, Road House borrows heavily from that most American of genres, the Western. In the absence of legitimate law enforcement and civic leadership, Dalton is the iconic new sheriff in town. And like the sheriffs of old, he uses violence to subdue the villains that prey on the noble volk of the movie’s mythical town. He carries the scars of that violence, on his body, and (like Alan Ladd in Shane ) in his bouncer’s heart. But in a strange divergence from form, happy hour at the Double Deuce looks like a Philippine disco when the hooch runs out, what with all the pig stickers, poniards, daggers, and dirks on deadly display. Swayze’s Dalton is a Tai Chi cowboy without a six gun.
And I can’t believe that Brad Wesley would eschew firearms purely on the basis of ethics or style. This is a man who, with no qualms, orders a farmhouse dramatically exploded – with the old coot still sleeping inside it! Who uses a monster truck to destroy an entire used-car dealership – in front of a crowd of a hundred people! Who causes the Dalton’s father figure/mentor to be mortally pinned to the lacquered bar of the Double Deuce with a bowie – over a flipped coin! Our hero lives a literal stone’s throw away from Wesley’s front porch – why doesn’t Wesley lay-off a few of his mostly-incompetent pugilist hirelings and spring for a legitimate shootist with a scoped rifle to put the fucker down? But like the chanbara cinema of Japan where only the lowliest, most dishonorable rogues embrace the murderous technology of the western pistol over the sacred blade, Road House depicts a gun-free world we don’t quite recognize. Director Rowdy Herrington asks the viewer to suspend disbelief in a vaguely Southern American town where the bullet is, somehow, not the closing salvo of every argument, and the individual heroism of a common brawler can lead a community to redemption. When pistols and shotguns finally make their belated appearance, anyone who has seen Sonny Chiba in The Streetfighter (1974) can predict the outcome: lots of inside crescent kicks, sprained wrists, and flying firearms.
At least the town businessmen who have been suffering under Wesley’s yoke like Rodin’s Burghers of Calais resort to 12 gauges when they finally do him in. I don’t think Herrington meant to imply a Shakespearean level of moral ambiguity with the mob execution a la Julius Caesar (1953), but we can’t be too sure. Like all true myths, Road House is bound by an internal logic. It operates at a level above our understanding, and we judge it at our own peril.
Rental Rehab guest review by Joshua
 Auden, W. H., “Herman Melville,” 1939.