“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” says Dalton, the new cooler at the Double Deuce. He’s half right. In Road House, Dalton is played by Patrick Swayze and is hired by a bar owner with a place “outside of Kansas City” that he wants Dalton to clean up. It used to be a nice place, we learn, but now it’s the kind of place where they have to clean the eyeballs off the floor at the end of the night. Charming. Dalton quits his current gig, gives his car to a homeless man and makes the trek up to the Double Deuce to turn it around. That’s half our story, and what might have been a good one. I don’t know much about how security at a bar works and the early moments explaining the tough business of bouncing and keeping the peace have some of the same quality of those Scorsese scenes where he lays out the internal machinations on an operation. However, then Dalton and we discover that we’re in for more than we bargained for.
Cleaning up the Double Deuce is cake, the real issue is that the little town is in the vice grip of a sadistic community bully who, as head of the towns improvement society or something, can legally steal from every business and burn down any building he likes. This is Brad Wesley, played with little joy by Ben Gazzara and he doesn’t like Dalton because, uh, I think because he fired Wesley’s nephew from the Double Deuce. In any event before their final showdown half a dozen people will be dead, three buildings will have been incinerated and many, many people will have been punched. So much punching.
Popular culture is a terribly fickle thing. There’s nothing about Road House, which is artless, clumsy and dull to make it stick around over 20 years after its release, yet it remains a cult hit and its for that reason that I came across it tonight. I’m not sure it justifies its status, it’s not really entertainingly bad, it’s just bad. I guess, if Goldfinger (1964) is considered the first Bond movie to put all the pieces together, perhaps Road House is the last word on the worst of 1980s action pictures. Here we have gratuitous nudity and violence, a comic villain with vague motivation, light blue jeans, cheesy lines, machismo, and heroes with bigger and better hair than their flavor of the week starlets, never to be seen again. It’s all here but what makes it surreal, I guess, is the bizarre spins.
For example, Dalton, our macho bouncer, has a dark past, apparently he ripped a man’s throat out a while back and he carries that guilt around with him. That’s pretty deep for a man who is capable of ripping someone’s throat out, but then of course, Dalton has a degree from NYU so he’s a fairly deep guy. This is the kind of detail that is supposed to add instant characterization but becomes useless if the script doesn’t do anything with it. We might as well have found out that Dalton’s favorite color is blue for as much as his NYU degree informs his decisions in the movie. Also, this is a movie where the men talk tough, they hit first and ask questions later and some of them have guns in their socks, so what exactly are we to make of a line like “I used to fuck guys like you in prison?” Is that tough? Is it macho? Or is it weird? It sounds weird. I’m not sure I need to tell you that that guy gets his throat ripped out.
I’m more or less unfamiliar with the cinema of director Rowdy Herrington with the exception of one other outing, a forgettable Bruce Willis action piece called Striking Distance (1993), in which Willis plays an alcoholic ex-cop who is now a coast guard member, if I remember correctly. He was on a boat a lot, I’m sure of that. That one did its job; it came out, made its money, and slunk away into the land of bad movies that nobody has to see again. Road House is missing that last step.