The Mythology of Road House (1989)

Road House, should by any account of taste be relegated to a bargain DVD bin.  But, despite all of its proclivities, it remains to this day, an absolute masterwork of the absurd.  Patrick Swayze battles a neo-conservative ghoul for the soul of a southern town, while simultaneously wooing a beautiful doctor and arguing the philosophical specifics of the life of a bouncer with Sam Elliot.  The absolute magic of this film, decades later, is in how a mythology is built.   Bruised, drunken gods walk the streets of Jasper, Missouri while henchmen ply their trades in seedy nightclubs and decadent mansions and mere mortals can do nothing but witness the collision of neon, blood, and bone.  Rowdy Herrington builds this mythos atop a veneer of neo-western sensibilities, while also serving as a transition from the macho fueled 80's action classics to the violent, more contemplative films of the early nineties.  Featuring an unforgettable cast, memorable songs and dialogue, and one of the most unique presentations of genre ever committed to the screen, this is one of the greatest films ever made. 

Dalton is an enigmatic cooler who is drawn into conflict with the crime boss of a small town.  What follows is an escalation of violence that threatens to destroy not only Dalton, but everyone and everything he cares about.  Patrick Swayze gives the performance of his career.  Combining his unrelenting cool with his balletic movement, Dalton is a sexy, graceful, and an absolutely dangerous legend.  Opposite Swayze is film icon Ben Gazzara as the corrupt potentate of Jasper.  His Brad Wesley is unique monster, prone to domestic violence and nonchalant murder while also evoking the ideals of older generations.  He wears the guise of a veteran and philanthropist that hides the darker, more insidious nature within.  This works as an excellent foil to Dalton because both are warriors but at opposite ends of the continuum. 

The supporting cast is filled with talent.  Sam Elliot gives one of his most memorable turns as Wade Garrett, Dalton's confidant and teacher.  Their relationship, and their approach to the trade of bouncing is what forms the ethos that winds through the bubble gum aesthetics.  These are tough, thoughtful men who truly never wish to fight, and yet their entire existence is defined by violence and death.  Kevin Tighe, Kelly Lynch,  and Keith David have notable supporting turns as well, but it is Jeff Healey and his band that is perhaps the strongest element, as the memorable soundtrack features both covers and original songs by the band, another key ingredient in the worldbuilding that Harrington did. 

One of the more unusual and interesting standouts is John William Young's memorable performance as the likable thug Tinker.  Throughout the film, Tinker is the only one of Wesley's thugs to actually injure Dalton.  In each of the fights, Tinker connects with each of his targets except Wade Garrett.  Whether on purpose or not, the implications of this are intriguing as Tinker; arguably the soul of Jasper incarnate; is able to wound Dalton, but does not possess the ability to wound his creator, thus signifying Garrett's godlike reputation and Dalton's inherent vulnerabilities. This is further intimated in the finale, as Tinker is the only thug to survive the carnage. 

Foreshadowing is another prominent feature in the presentation.  Dean Cundey (The Thing) uses his cinematography to create different worlds.  First there is the controlled glitz of the Bandstand that eventually gives way to the chaos of the Double Deuce.  In the Bandstand, there is neon lights, gold and silver.  In the Double Deuce there is washed out colors and blood.  As the film transitions into the final act, the Double Deuce becomes an amalgam of both, symbolizing how Dalton has both mastered his demons, while also accepting them for what they are. 

David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin's script is full of endlessly quotable lines that both emulate the Westerns from which they were inspired while also lampooning them.  Road House is a movie that knows exactly what it is and it dangerously walks the line between brutality and parody.  Any other director and combination of cast and crew would have taken it too far across one side, but Herrington managed perfection by understanding the nuance of both approaches.  Upon first viewing, this could be thought of as a forgettable macho experience, but it slowly becomes clear through each scene and set piece that this is something so much more, and this is because of the way the balance between the two extremes is continually maintained. The result?  A true masterwork of American action cinema. 

Now available for digital rental, Road House is surely a relic of its time and yet it possesses fundamental American themes that still have meaning and draw in the modern world.  This is a film that both sides of the political spectrum tend to enjoy, yet another mystifying miracle of this film's legacy.  There are not many films that simply slide into one's identity the way this film does.  It simply becomes part of the viewer’s universal subconscious, linking them with anyone else who has ever ventured through the inviting and ominous doors of the Double Deuce, creating a familial pantheon of demigods whose only demand to their supplicants is: Be Nice, Until It's Time to Not Be Nice.   

--Kyle Jonathan