Road House (1989) – A Review


A review of the 1989 cult action film Road House, starring Patrick Swayze, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara and Kelly Preston, the beloved cult film with Swayze as a legendary bouncer

Road House 1989 Patrick Swayze action cult movie

The Double Deuce bar is in very bad shape. It’s got the reputation of being the rowdiest, toughest spot in town. You don’t go to the Double Deuce for a relaxing night of drinking and laughs. It’s drunken fistfights, drug dealing, bottles being thrown and stealing by the employees. Frank Tighman (Kevin Tighe) has had enough of being the owner of the most notorious dive bar in Jasper, Missouri and goes looking for the one man that can help.

That man is James Dalton (Patrick Swayze), a legendary bouncer who brings his PHD education in philosophy, martial arts skills, Zen mentality and ultra cool looking mullet to any dingy juke joint that needs his help. He’ll get rid of the riff raff and turn the Double Deuce into a refurbished, glitzy, profitable, fun place where no one will dare cause a problem.

Well, local business man Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara) doesn’t like what’s going on. He controls the town and Dalton’s way of doing things is upsetting Wesley’s stranglehold on the locals that has made him a rich man. Wesley will intimidate, threaten and unleash his henchman on poor Dalton and anyone who stands alongside him.

Dalton gets plenty busy trading fisticuffs with Wesley’s thugs, romancing doctor Kelly Lynch, getting sage advice from his mentor bouncer Sam Elliott and keeping the Double Deuce’s doors open and ultimately saving the town from the miserable rule of Wesley.

And with that we have Road House! The film that serves up testosterone-filled fight scenes, a boat-load of cheesy one-liners, scenery-chewing performances and that has become one of the most popular and beloved cult films of all time.

Road-House-1989-Ben-Gazzara-Patrick-Swayze-cult-action-classicI don’t think a week goes by that I can’t find Road House playing on some cable station. Back in the day TBS and TNT practically made airings of it as frequent as a weekly sitcom. I’d tell my friend, “Hey Road House is on again!” and she’d reliably reply, “They’re going to break it!”

When Road House first came out in May 1989, it didn’t make much of an impression. This was a glossy Joel Silver produced action flick, so it was reasonable to expect it to draw some action fans in.

But, this was the famed summer of ’89 where the calendar was filled with huge, highly-anticipated films. With cinemas drawing crowds for Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, When Harry Met Sally…..and I can go on and on….Road House had trouble finding an audience.

It came and went pretty quickly from theaters. Audiences didn’t turn up and critics poo poo’d it. It would end up earning an armful of Razzie nominations, including Worst Picture and Worst Actor for Swayze. At the time it was an easy flick to kick.

However, like many other films to be christened a ‘cult film’, Road House got a liveline from VHS rentals and cable television airings. Folks started tuning into it and discovering for themselves the strange allure the film has. As Roger Ebert wrote about it at the time of its release, Road House exists right on the edge between the ‘good-bad movie’ and the merely bad. I hesitate to recommend it, because so much depends on the ironic vision of the viewer. This is not a good movie. But viewed in the right frame of mind, it is not a boring one, either.”

That sums up Road House quite well.

Here’s Siskel & Ebert reviewing Road House upon its release

Patrick-Swayze-Kelly-Lynch-Sam-Elliott-Road-House-1989Road House plays like a goofy modern day western. Sawyze rolls into town like the mysterious gunman whose mission is to clean up the town. He coolly gets acquainted with troubles that are filling the Double Deuce and swiftly lays down the law. With his famous ‘Three Simple Rules’ speech, he schools the bouncers (the ones he doesn’t fire) of the vital philosophy of being a great bouncer. One – Never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected. Two – Take it outside, never start anything in the bar unless it’s absolutely necessary. And Three – Be Nice…until it’s time to not be nice.

Patrick-Swayze-Road-House-1989-Be-Nice-Speech-cult-classicIt is such a comical scene, that’s played so sincerely straight, which makes it so deliciously entertaining. It’s almost like how the actors in Airplane! would play the comedy completely straight and not go for the laughs of acknowledge the absurd situation that’s unraveling around them. 

That’s sort of Road House’s essential being. It becomes such a ridiculous story, but the film never lets on that it knows it. Now, whether that was the intention and the filmmakers were conscious of the silliness OR actually believed that this was a serious action film, I don’t know.

According to director Rowdy Harrington, he was very aware of what the script was and everyone “had our tongue planted firmly in our cheeks” while making it. He thought of Road House “as a bit of a cartoon in a sense.” So perhaps there was an awareness of the campy nature to Road House when making it. Or could it be that there was a push and pull between Harrington and Silver with the tone of the film and it ended up doing this bizarre balancing act between playing ultra serious with comical preposterousness creeping in?

The way Road House ends up with the ‘So Bad It’s Good Quality’ I would think is difficult to intentionally plan out and execute.

It would be extremely difficult to make a parody of Road House, since it’s so dialed up, there’s barely anything in it to escalate for comedy. It is filled with surreal scenes of macho-ness and kitschy lines of dialogue, it’s as if Road House was designed to be a fountain of memes before they were even a thing.

Dalton shows a stealing bartender the door, who happens to be in the good graces of Wesley. After a slight altercation of some goons who he kicks the crap out of it, Dalton heads to the hospital to get stitched up. There he meets Dr. Elizabeth ‘Doc’ Clay (Kelly Lynch). Interest and sparks between this doctor and bouncer ignite. It must’ve of been his deep thought of expressing “Pain don’t hurt”.

Ben-Gazzara-as-Brad-Wesley-Road-House-1989Dalton gradually learns that Wesley is controlling many of the locals and exploiting them. No one is willing to risk going up against Wesley. Even the thought of not agreeing to Wesley’s demands will be met with swift force, in some not so subtle ways. It’s hard to miss Wesley ordering a Big Foot truck to destroy a car dealership and declaring to the devastated owner “This is my town” in any other way than he’s a big, brazen bad guy.

But Dalton IS willing to stand up against him. Even when Wesley reveals he knows that Dalton once killed a man years back, Dalton is unshakable in his principles and refuses the request to work for him. Dalton feels compelled to stop Wesley’s dominance, even when even more legendary bouncer and mentor Wade Garrett (Elliott) advises him to cut his losses and they should hit the highway.

Of course that results with Wesley tossing more goons at Dalton and the Double Deuce. Dalton and Doc get busy with their romance with lovemaking sessions in Dalton’s expansive barn apartment – that just happens to be right across the river from Wesley’s mansion.

Things reach a peak when Dalton must fight Wesley’s right hand man Jimmy (Marshall Teague) who’s a skilled fighter and isn’t as moral with killing. It’s a knock down life-ending fight for one of them (guess who) with a burning building behind them and the bizarre line of Jimmy telling Dalton, “I used to f*** guys like you in prison.”

That line has gone down in the patheon of memorably, odd lines said in film.

No longer willing to play nice with Dalton, Wesley gives him a choice between Wade and Doc to be killed. It’s one of my favorite moments from Gazarra. Over the phone he gives Dalton this offer, and when Dalton doesn’t come up with one Gazarra nonchalantly says, “Well then, I’ll just have to flip a coin” which he does. I’ve always loved how he puts the phone down, takes out a coin, takes the time to flip it and looks at it with a little satisfied nod as if the answer just arrived to him.

Gazarra is the one actor in Road House that appears to have been very conscious of what exactly he was in and just decided to have fun with every scene and loopy piece of dialogue he was given. Weaving around a road in his convertible singing ‘Sh-Boom’ by the Crew Cuts, lecturing his goons that he’s very disappointed with them and asking for an apology, talking about how he’s responsible for making the town as successful as it is. He proclaims “JC Penny is coming here because of me!”

He’s a true highlight in the film. Gazzara is so much fun to watch. He doesn’t just play a flat, bland ‘villain’, but has an outrageous arrogance with his low booming voice. Well, clearly it’s outrageous when he can order Big Foot to drive though car dealerships! Gazzara embraces the part and has a ball.

Had Road House been a true western, Gazzara would’ve surely been wearing a black hat and twirling a long dark mustache.

Elliott has a laid back, unflappable presence with his scenes. He’s swigs beer and catches Swayze’s punch when it looks like the two friends are about to go toe-to-toe. He and Swayze fight off baddies and he’s given some choice lines of his own for his distinctive low-gravely voice, like “That gal has too many brains to have an ass like that.”

Sam-Elliott-Patrick-Swayze-Road-House-1989There are some world class voices in Road House. I would love to have heard a verbal debate between Elliott and Gazzara!

I’ve read that Elliott has said out of all the films in his career, the most often mentioned one to him by fans is Road House.

The climax is Dalton heading over to Wesley’s extravagant pad for the final showdown. It’s quintessential 80’s action with some explosions, guns, glass shattering and fighting. Then it all ends with one of the most unusual final lines in cinema history – “A polar bear fell on me”.

How did they ever come up with that???

As silly as it all is, Road House lures you in and becomes an entertaining 80’s yarn. And I haven’t even mentioned some nudity provided by buxom blonde Julie Michaels, who does a seductive strip tease. Some rocking tunes by Jeff Healey leading the Double Deuce’s band. And Swayze who’s at his physical peak. He sustained quite a number of injuries during filming. He gave the role his all.

Road-House-1989-Patrick-Swayze-Julie-Michaels-blonde-sexy-stripteaseThe idea of a fabled bouncer traveling around the country, whose so legendary everyone thought he would be much bigger after hearing all the tales about him, (who is Dalton supposed to be….Paul Bunyan?) yeah it’s ludicrous, but it ends up being such a gleefully engrossing oddball tale that I can’t help myself sitting back and having fun with it everytime I stumble onto it.

I know I’m not alone. Road House is more popular today than when it was first released. There was never talk of a sequel to it. Back in ’89, it appeared to be a ‘one and done’ modest actioner that failed to make any waves and everyone would move on.

True Road House fans know sadly, we never got further adventures or story of the legendary bouncer Dalton. Can you imagine the possibilities? There must of been countless bars and towns that could have benefited from the expertise of Dalton. More outlandish speeches, more sex in barn lofts, more self-stitching medical procedures, more small towns that needed his help. Yet, it was never meant to be.

Patrick-Swayze-as-Dalton-Road-House-1989-bouncer-action-movie-Double-Deuce-barRoad House is on the lower, less respected rung on Swayze’s resume. When he died in 2009, most of the clips, photos and remembrances revolved around Dirty Dancing, Ghost, Point Break. The camp silliness of Road House was at best a quick footnote. Maybe they snuck in a snippet from his famed ‘Be Nice’ speech, but that was about it.

It wasn’t a film that was used to showcase the best qualities of him or his career. Yet, Road House endures in much stronger ways than I think anyone would have expected back in ’89.

Road House has enjoyed quite an enduring legacy. It’s often listed high in lists of ‘The Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made’. It has had multiple releases on dvd and BluRay over the years, with special collector deluxe editions that are packed with featurettes, commentaries and interviews.

A direct-to-dvd ‘name only sequel’ titled Road House 2: Last Call was released in 2006, that by all accounts wasn’t worth any attention. The only thing they had going for it was using the ‘Road House’ name. In 2003 there was an off-Broadway musical based on Road House which starred Taimak (from the cult classic The Last Dragon). I read that the NYPD uses Dalton’s ‘Be Nice’ speech for recruits to demonstrate the importance of their behavior to the public. 

Patrick-Swayze-as-Dalton-bouncer-Road-House-1989Could the makers of Road House have anticipated the film being used as an educational film in any capacity???

There has been rumblings of a ‘remake’ or a ‘reboot’ or something in more recent years. Ronda Rousey would be the world-renowned bouncer at one point. Now Jake Gyllenhaal is being mentioned to step into Swayze’s boots.

We’ll have to wait and see if anything happens in that department. I don’t feel too confident that it will capture the appeal that makes Road House such a hoot. I never thought a film can achieve the status of a ‘camp classic’ by any sort of planning by the filmmakers. It’s just something that happens and the audience determines that destiny for a film.

Road House was like capturing lightening in a beer bottle – that’s then thrown across the bar.

So, you can call Road House a punchline. A shorthand title to be used in a mocking way. A silly cult film, whose premise is straight away ridiculous – a legendary philosophizing bouncer arrives to clean up a town. Yeah, it’s easy to shake your head and roll your eyes at.

Ok, I’ll give you that. But it’s also a pretty darn fun movie! It’s the perfect Saturday night actioner where you eat your popcorn, revel in 80’s action and hear Swayze recite philosophy quotations, alonside principles from the bouncer way of life, such as “In a fight, nobody wins”.

It’s a unique cinema experience.

The Trailer

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