Road House (1989)

Directed by Rowdy Herrington

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Patrick Swayze plays a peace-minded bouncer in Road House, an action movie so glorious, satirical, oily and self-aware that it seems the perfect capper to a decade of over the top action movies.

Dalton’s (Swayze) reputation precedes him wherever he goes.  He’s tough, no-nonsense, and like in so many of these kinds of action movies he is the moral authority, a spiritualist reluctant to fight (“no one ever wins a fight”) who nevertheless will find himself in the middle of many, many hand to hand combat situations.  At one point he kills a man by ripping out his throat.

Because his legend has spread further than he has, when characters meet the stoic hero for the first time, they often repeat some variation of “I thought you’d be bigger.”  The line does two things, at least as far as I can tell: It winks to the audience, noting Swayze’s lean stature and it builds up its lead character in a way that plays on the existing fame of the lead performer.

So many 80s action movies start with the action hero who’s iconographic image on its own could sell the film.  These are people like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Clause Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Wesley Snipes and more.  They are toy soldiers come to life, big enough in stature that it’s as though they’re wearing the Mech Suit from Aliens (1986).

In contrast, Swayze is almost uniquely human.  He’s small and slender, and the film makes a point to further separate him from the super macho heroes of films’ past.  He practices martial arts, lives in a barn, studied philosophy in college, and he’s quick to disarm a fight rather than start one.  That’s only the beginning, of course, because the movie still ends with an absolute bloodbath.

In that way the film balances a deeply felt code but isn’t afraid to turn it all into pure pulp.  There’s a lot of eastern philosophy here and as well about the evils of capitalism.  The obscene villain of Road House is Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), a wealthy man who literally owns the entire town in which the story is set.

Wesley is a parody of an industrialist, and soon he becomes just about pure evil incarnate, a force so destructive and wild that it’s easy to forget why or how he and Dalton became mortal enemies.  The story explains how they come into conflict, but the reasons don’t much matter at all, because you get the impression they were born to butt heads, with one unable to exist while the other does.

The movie is wild and delirious and fantastic.  If there are any illusions of reality at the start, they are quickly stripped away.  Wesley will pull highly visual stunts to show his power over the town and its inhabitants, and the fight between him and Dalton becomes one of biblical proportions.  In fact the entirety of this story feels like it has been ripped from the Bible.

So maybe that’s it, Road House is all of the following: an 80’s action movie, a modern day erotic western, a kung fu movie, and a modern day biblical drama.

Because yeah, it’s quite erotic, and that goes back to Swayze.  He isn’t glorified for the destruction he causes but rather the simple movements of his body.  He is framed like a dancer, lit like one too, and he moves with perhaps an unexpected grace.  He is objectified in ways we rarely see in movies (outside of maybe Magic Mike) but in a way that wouldn’t feel out of the ordinary were it a woman.

So I guess that’s part of the selling point, that the hero is beautiful, I think in a way so many action heroes are but this time around almost unabashedly so.

Up Next: Police Story (1985), The Mustang (2019), Five Feet Apart (2019)

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