Road House

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: When the Jasper night spot the Double Deuce needs sprucing up and sorting out, the owner turns to Dalton, the coolest cooler in town. The mission brings Dalton into conflict with the town’s big cheese Brad Wesley and a world of pain, though there’s helpfully a shapely doctor on hand.

The world mourned, and with good reason, when Patrick Swayze passed away in 2009 at the age of 57. I suspect, however, that the tributes people paid to the man were of two distinct sorts: one from a largely female group remembering his bad-boy, hip-swivelling Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing or achingly romantic Sam Wheat in Ghost; the other, almost exclusively male, who couldn’t give a stuff about any of that but thought he was the dog’s you-know-whats in Road House.

Bar owner Frank Wightman (Kevin Tighe) wants, and needs, the best bouncer in the business to control the unruly patrons of the Double Deuce in Jasper, not far from Kansas. So he calls on Dalton (Swayze), technically not a bouncer but a cooler, the man who decides when to let things go and when to employ some muscle. However, whilst Frank, doe-eyed waitress Carrie (Kathleen Wilhoite) and rockin’ blues guitarist Cody (Jeff Healey, complete with band playing behind the relative safety of chicken wire) are glad to have the legendary Dalton at the Deuce, others are less happy, including the robbing barman who just happens to be the nephew of local big noise Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara).

Brad’s business is the ruthless extortion of money from the businessmen of Jasper, backed up with the threat of big lunk Jimmy (Marshall Teague) and, if push comes to shove, more explosive methods of getting his way. As Dalton earns the respect of those who come to the Deuce, he also gains battle scars, the interest of sensible doctor Kelly Lynch and a sworn enemy in Wesley, who also had his eye on the doctor whilst keeping trophy blonde Denise (Julie Michaels) on a tight leash; and when Dalton’s best friend Wade (Sam Elliott) comes to town – reminding Dalton of his violent past – Wesley’s campaign of terror brings tensions to boiling point. The town must either yield to Brad’s iron fist and get rid of Dalton, or Dalton must – whatever the cost – get rid of Wesley.

There are very few films less sophisticated than Road House, but for once this is a fact absolutely to be celebrated. It’s a genuinely American film, which doesn’t mock the stupid for being stupid or patronise either its location or story with irony. Dalton’s craft is fascinating as he whips the Deuce, Gordon Ramsay-style, from a spit-and-sawdust nightmare to the epitome of late 80s rock chic (the big hair on view is merely an incidental pleasure). Everything that goes along with this transformation – the girls, the blues, the kick-ass fights, the monster trucks – works as a showcase of vulgar, brash and very honest Americana.

And then the movie goes somewhere else. This may well say more about my ignorance of Westerns than my insight into modern movies, but to me Road House is a Western transplanted to the modern day. Swayze is the Man with One Name who rides into town to clean up the corruption he witnesses, and his tussle against the callous and gloriously unmotivated Gazzara escalates from a smirking disregard to a passionate and single-minded vendetta. It’s not Peckinpah, exactly, as the budget is clearly more that of straight-to-video nonsense, but there’s a power about the way Road House builds to its climax that really draws you in.

Most of the reason for this is the performances of Swayze (anguished, despite himself), Elliott (impossibly cool) and especially Gazzara, a villain you almost demand to have a nasty and violent death. Coupled with the neat, efficient and immediate way the fight scenes are shot, Rowdy Herrington’s movie can barely do wrong even when it knows it’s ridiculous, such as when Dalton describes his reasons for studying philosophy: ’Man’s search for faith, that sort of sh*t.’

Road House will never win prizes for artistic merit, though I will fight anyone who scoffs at Jeff Healey’s blues numbers (I wouldn’t stand up for his acting!); it’s precisely because it doesn’t aspire to anything it’s not, and because it is a perfect distillation of a heap of trashy, redneck elements that the film‘s fame has lasted while hundreds of other, cheaper movies that trod a similar path were instantly forgotten. You can keep your secret dancing clubs and your beyond-the-grave pottery, for me Road House is Swayze’s finest hour. Though I did think he’d be bigger…

NOTES: My other favourite quote of Dalton’s: ‘You’re too stupid to have a good time!’

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