Sunday, September 28, 2014

Road House (1989) review


Patrick Swayze (Dalton), Kelly Lynch (Elizabeth Clay), Sam Elliott (Wade Garrett), Marshall Teague (Jimmy), Julie Michaels (Denise), Red West (Red Webster), Jeff Healey (Cody), Kevin Tighe (Tilghman), Kathleen Wilhoite (Carrie), Terry Funk (Morgan), Anthony De Longis (Ketchum), Keith David (Ernie Bass)

Directed by Rowdy Herrington

"Well, it was a good night... nobody died."

The Short Version: One of the finest examples of Tough Guy cinema is this rambunctious throwback to Southern Fried 70s style macho movies, six-shooter cinema, and Chinese kung fu films. Patrick Swayze is Dalton, "the best damn cooler in the business", hired to pacify -- in the most painfully persuasive way possible -- the uncouth elements of the swangin' Double Deuce bar. It's an oasis of testosterone packed with blood, sweat, and bare chests; barroom brawls, kung fu, strippers, tough talk, and beer. Lots of beer. 

Famous bouncer James Dalton is coerced into relocating to Jasper, a small Missouri town to clean up The Double Deuce, an out of control bar where bottles and heads are broken every night. Upon his arrival, Dalton discovers the entire town is under the control of a sadistic, corrupt businessman named Brad Wesley. Eventually the situation spirals out of control leading to a kung fu fightin', gun-blastin' climactic confrontation with Wesley and his small army of murderous thugs.

With the 80s winding down, the era of the action hero was coming to an end. Entering the next decade, this celebrated style of hero began flying its flag at half mast, where it remained these last few decades. ROAD HOUSE (1989) -- a two hour male fantasy -- was one of the last of its kind before guys like Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal took the torch; only for egoism and bad behavior to cause their careers to quickly dim, finding sanctuary on home video. 

ROAD HOUSE is unique among its burlier, hairier, more muscular colleagues. It's a 1970s Drive-in movie storyline that had a bit too much to drink, and stumbled into a 1980s setting. Those movies seldom adhered to reality and ROAD HOUSE is about as unreal as you can get. It jettisons the popular 80s action template of a seemingly invincible hero taking on scores of gun-toting adversaries without so much as a scratch. Our level-headed cooler Dalton is definitely not invincible. He's a flawed, philosophical, and complicated guy. He's got an answer for every situation, and often that answer comes with an exclamation point in the form of a fist or foot; yet where ROAD HOUSE beats the hell out of reality and throws it out on its ass is in its depiction of law and order -- there is none! 

This is one of those movies where the police are never seen. Even when buildings are blown to kingdom come the police never show up. We're told the evil Wesley owns them, but aside from the climax, no one ever need ask that question about the Bad Boys -- "What'cha gonna do when they come for you?" Regarding his ownership of the local constabulary, it's interesting that the one time we do see the perfunctory police, it's at the end during the wildly over the top settling of accounts at Wesley's mansion. Naturally, nobody saw a thing, and everybody still standing lives happily ever after.

A great many 70s Drive-in films with plotlines revolving around revenge, car chases and excessive violence were little more than modern day westerns; and no doubt in some of those out of the way hamlets, life carried on like it did back in tumbleweed time periods. ROAD HOUSE is an example of this. Jasper, Missouri is essentially an Old Western town married to Chinese kung fu physicality. 

Another thing Rowdy Herrington's rowdy little movie has going for it is attitude. The script contains a staggering amount of balls that's so abrasive, a sign should read on every page of the screenplay, 'only utter lunacy and improbability allowed'. The dialog alternates between the usual macho lingual badassery and old fashioned exchanges heard on countless kung fu movies such as this classic proclamation, "Prepare to die!" It sounds silly here, but only adds to the whole free-wheelin', beer-guzzlin', barroom brawlin' good time that ROAD HOUSE maintains for nearly two hours.

The old western mentality extends to the dialog as well. There's a running gag for Dalton -- everywhere he goes, he's told by those he comes into contact with, "I thought you'd be bigger"; him being a bouncer and all. This being a reference to the "I heard you were dead" line from the John Wayne classic BIG JAKE (1971). John Carpenter reused that line for his ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), and later modified it for ESCAPE FROM LA (1996) with "I thought you'd be taller."

Chuck Norris had cornered the market on American made martial arts movies in the 1980s. By the mid 80s onward, he'd given up those more grounded epics for more explosive actioners with less emphasis on karate, and more attention towards big guns and even bigger explosions. ROAD HOUSE contains some impressive martial arts sequences choreographed by martial arts champion, Benny "The Jet" Urquidez. The Jet had appeared in movies prior to this one, his first being FORCE: FIVE in 1981. He was really allowed to shine in two of Jackie Chan's HK made movies, WHEELS ON MEALS (1984) and DRAGONS FOREVER (1988). In America, he was primarily a fight coordinator. You can spot him as one of Wesley's thugs in the car dealership demolition sequence (he's in the blue shirt in insert pic).

One of the keys to the films longevity with action fans is, not surprisingly, the Dalton character. The scriptwriters wisely gave him a backstory -- a fragmented one with just enough info passed along that not only elevates Dalton to legendary status, but doesn't require a whole lot of exposition on Swayze's part other than to spout Zen mantras like "Pain don't hurt" -- often coming before or after an action scene; and like the 70s actioners ROAD HOUSE emulates, there's not a great deal of action to begin with; at least not on the scale of something like a Rambo movie. All the action scenes are limited to brutal brawls accompanied by lots of broken glass, furniture, and bones. There's some spectacular stunts, too.  

Patrick Swayze wasn't an action star on the level of heavyweights like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Stallone. His strength was in his ability to successfully cross into other genres that satisfied both male and female demographics. His career is dotted with Tough Guy roles (UNCOMMON VALOR, RED DAWN), romantic movies (DIRTY DANCING, GHOST), and dramatic television events (NORTH AND SOUTH, NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II). ROAD HOUSE is among his best, and best remembered works. Swayze passed away September 14th, 2009 from pancreatic cancer. He was only 57 years old.

Kelly Lynch plays Elizabeth Clay. She's the pretty doctor that instantly becomes attracted to Dalton when he shows up in her emergency room with a knife wound and a laundry list of past bodily injuries to make Buford Pusser jealous. She's mostly referred to as "Doc". And like all good doctors, she doesn't go all the way on the first date... she waits for the second date. Lynch doesn't add much to the movie other than to be Dalton's love interest, and look good with her lithe, toned frame and full lips. 

Women in general are just window dressing in ROAD HOUSE. It's a GUY movie, after all; and one of the last of a dying breed before, unlike the cops in the movie, the PC police began whipping out the batons on rugged masculinity by the new millennium. But going back to the ladies of ROAD HOUSE, it's reflective of the bar culture. There's women dancing on tables; women using their bodies to turn men on (the vivacious Julie Michaels); and women with a tough attitude (the mouthy Kathleen Wilhoite of MURPHY'S LAW). To be fair, the filmmakers show just as much male skin as female, so there's equality among the sexes in this film; now let's talk about Julie Michaels for a bit.

The hard-bodied beauty was far more than the alluring, sexy pawn she plays in ROAD HOUSE, her film debut. She became a stuntwoman in the 90s for various movies and television programs pulling off some dangerous acts of daredevilry. You may remember seeing her in POINT BREAK (1991), or even WITCHBOARD 2 (1993); or at the beginning of JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY (1993) during a brief encounter with the infamous Crystal Lake slasher just prior to him being blown to pieces. She's appeared in about as many movies as she's performed stunts in. Julie Michaels is still doing stuntwork today, and is still stunning all these years later.

A cult classic in the making, Rowdy Herrington's wild, sexy, lawless oasis of masculinity has aged like a fine wine. One of the supreme examples of hairy man movies, ROAD HOUSE is a drunk and disorderly good time; a satisfying mixed drink made up of only the best ingredients action cinema has to offer.

This review is representative of the MGM/Fox Blu-ray.

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