Road House stars the late, great Patrick Swayze as Dalton, a role that is one of his most memorable and most beloved by his fans. Having earned a degree in philosophy, Dalton is a thoughtful and observant man with a cool, calm demeanor. He solves disturbances and stifles violence as his profession: he works as a cooler, the head of the bouncers at nightclubs and bars.
When we’re introduced to Dalton, first seen showing off his magnificent mane of hair in a profile shot as he nods his head to the music of Tito and Tarantula, he’s employed at a club in New York. But on this particular night, a man named Tilghman (Kevin Tighe) comes walking into the club and makes him another job offer, one which he can’t refuse.
For the price of $5000 up front, $500 a night, and all medical expenses paid, Dalton reports to Tilghman’s club The Double Deuce in the dusty little town of Jasper, Missouri, located not far from Kansas City. The Double Deuce is a total disaster, every night there’s blood on the floor; it’s described as a place where they have to “sweep up the eyeballs” every morning. Its clientele is made up of lecherous sleazeballs, druggies, violent drunks, and women with a predilection for table dancing and stripping.
Dalton gets to work fixing up the place, whipping the staff into shape, helping Tilghman weed out the lesser employees – a bartender who skims from the till, a waitress who deals drugs, bouncers with the wrong temperment for the job – and getting them replaced with people who are more trustworthy. Under Dalton’s guidance, and with the team of bouncers following his three simple rules (“never underestimate your opponent”, “take it outside”, “be nice… until it’s time to not be nice”), The Double Deuce is quickly cleaned up, becoming a place that’s usually pretty peaceful. Old, wooden signs are replaced with neon, the house band no longer needs to be protected by chicken wire.
As Dalton spends time in Jasper, he befriends some quirky characters, like the old farmer (Sunshine Parker) he rents a really nice barn apartment from and local store owner Red Webster, played by Elvis Presley’s buddy Red West. Dalton has history with the house band’s lead singer, whose name is Cody, so you know he’s awesome, and who is played by blind rock/blues musician Jeff Healey. Healey is backed up by his real life band in this movie, and at the time of filming they were recording their debut album. Over the next couple years, The Jeff Healey Band had a hit with the song “Angel Eyes” and were Grammy nominated for “Hideaway”. As Healey’s career continued, he also did a great cover of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, which George Harrison contributed to.
Dalton also finds a love interest in Jasper. At first, it looks like adorable waitress/sometimes singer Carrie (Kathleen Wilhoite) might pursue him, a romantic subplot I wouldn’t have minded watching, but even when it seems like she might have a chance, the viewer still knows that she’s probably not enough of a bombshell to get the hero in this kind of movie. Sure enough, Carrie ends up relegated to the background, as a knife wound causes Dalton to meet a model-esque doctor played by the 5’9″ and blonde Kelly Lynch. It doesn’t take long for their interactions to build up to a love scene set to Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine”, during which Dalton famously puts the Doc up against a rock wall. You’d presume that wouldn’t feel very good on her back, but she doesn’t seem to mind.
Poor Carrie… She does seem to hang out around Cody often, maybe something’s going on between them.
Dalton isn’t as big as people expect him to be, but he’s effective at his job, and he can be very dangerous when he’s pushed too far. There’s an urban legend that he might have once killed a man by ripping his throat out with his bare hands. It just happens to be true. Soon, Dalton finds himself in conflict with a villain who will bring his violent potential to the surface.
Dalton’s noble deeds draw the attention of the wealthy Brad Wesley, who lives right across a lake from the farm Dalton is staying on. Wesley has his criminal fingers in the pies of every business in town, including the Double Deuce, demanding a fee of at least 10% of each business’s earnings. The claim is that this money will go toward improving the town, but Wesley actually just uses it to fund his self-indulgent lifestyle of extravagant parties at his expensively decorated mansion, private helicopters, and recklessly weaving his convertible down the road while listening to hits from the ’50s. Dalton and Wesley do not see eye-to-eye on their approaches to life, and the fact that Wesley has a connection to Dalton’s new lover doesn’t help matters.
Dalton finds himself in fights with Wesley’s goons throughout the film, battling lackeys who are either played by large stuntmen or professional wrestlers, have blades hidden in their boots, or drive monster trucks. The stakes are raised with every encounter, and not long after Dalton’s mentor Wade Garrett (the fantastic and always great to watch Sam Elliott) arrives to visit his protégé, who he refers to as “mijo”, informal Spanish for “my son”, things really go to hell.
Although Brad Wesley is the “big bad” and the climax of the film involves Dalton infiltrating his mansion on a mission of revenge, Dalton’s greatest physical adversary in the film is actually Marshall Teague as the mulleted Jimmy, a character whose strength and fighting abilities match Dalton’s own. These two end up engaging in an extended sequence of brutal hand-to-hand combat, battling to the death outdoors, the water of the lake in the background from one angle, in the background of the opposite angle are the flames of a raging house fire. As they fight surrounded by the elements, it’s like they’re being presented as two forces of nature colliding… I don’t know, I’m not really analytical in that way. I tried.
Directed by Rowdy Harrington, Road House is exactly the type of film you’d expect to get from someone called Rowdy; packed with tough guys, beautiful and sometimes nude women, rock music, fistfights, assorted violent acts, explosions, and some ridiculous but awesome dialogue. It is absolutely not a movie for critics, it’s no surprise that it’s got a rotten score on the tomato meter, but it provides great entertainment for the right audience. It found its audience, and over the years they have raised it to the level of action classic.
I watched Road House a lot during my childhood from the time it first came out, in fact I have clear memories of going to see it at a drive-in on its opening weekend in May of 1989. I was taken along to the movie by my parents, and I remember that it was raining a little bit as it began, there was worry that the showing would be cancelled if the skies opened up anymore. Luckily, it was just a brief sprinkle. I remember my father’s disturbed reaction to the sight of Dalton stitching up a wound on his own arm early in the film. Even at that young age, I thought Sam Elliott was really cool. I also liked Dalton and the blind rocker with my name, of course. I was highly amused by the misadventures of overweight henchman Tinker (John Young), who gets taken out of the climactic action by having a stuffed polar bear knocked over on top of him.
When the movie reached VHS, we eventually bought a copy, which I witnessed getting a lot of play during viewings that were usually initiated by my older brother, who had a thing for Kelly Lynch.
After the mid-’90s, Road House lapsed out of my viewing rotation for a while, and it was filmmaker Kevin Smith and his longtime producer Scott Mosier who brought it back into the fold for me. During an introduction piece in the special features of the tenth anniversary DVD release of their movie Clerks in 2004, Kevin and Mos briefly drifted off the topic of Clerks and started riffing about the career of Jeff Healey, jokingly throwing out the idea that they should be asked to do an audio commentary on Road House. Their joking suggestion was made a reality when a special edition release of Road House was put together in 2006, it does indeed feature a commentary by Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier. Despite the fact that they sometimes rely too heavily on “Chuck Norris facts” that they’ve retrofitted into “Dalton facts”, they provide a pretty entertaining talk over a movie they had absolutely nothing to do with. As a devoted Kevin Smith fan, I was very happy when the Road House commentary really happened, and had to own the DVD it was on.
I may have purchased the disc for that “fan commentary”, but I also went back to watching the movie without commentary like in the old days, and I was reintroduced to a film that really is a very cool action movie that doesn’t ask much from you other than to just bask in the glory of its badassery.