Road House (1989) (part 1 of 15)
—Michael J. Nelson, from Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese
A word of warning: This could be the Swayze-est recap ever posted to the Agony Booth.
Ever since last year’s Patrick Swayze Christmas, which Jessica Ritchey observed with her recap of Ghost, people have often asked me: Why have a Patrick Swayze Christmas? Well, to be honest, the whole Christmas-related movie thing was getting old. Plus, when the first Christmas movie you recap is Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, all other Santa-related movies look like Fellini films in comparison.
And then there’s the fact that, to me, anyway, Patrick Swayze is a lot like Santa Claus. He may not come around every year, but every now and then, he drops a gift down my chimney in the form of a hilariously cheesy movie. And without a doubt, the most amazing gift Swayze ever gave this world was Road House.
What makes Road House such a great movie? The answer is easy: It’s quite simply the most implausible film ever made. Compared to Road House, Star Wars is a documentary. Literally every single frame of this film features something—some action, a line of dialogue, a ridiculous bit of set dressing, stupid costuming—that could never, ever happen/exist in real life.
This is a movie that expects you to believe a man can be famous the world over for being a bouncer. This is a movie that wants you to believe a small-town crime lord can afford a Bigfoot 4×4 monster truck, and that he will actually use it to intimidate local businesses. This is a movie that wants you to believe it’s possible to rip a man’s throat out with your bare hands. Every aspect of Road House is shamelessly ludicrous and over the top: the direction, the acting, the special effects, the fight choreography, everything. Hell, even the Foley guys take it to the extreme on this one.
When it was originally released in 1989, it did moderate business, with a total US take of $30 million. But the vast majority of those tickets were bought by women, flocking to the movie due to the presence of Patrick Swayze, who was just coming off a little film called Dirty Dancing.
Dirty Dancing was a huge smash, grossing over $200 million worldwide, and spawning two platinum-selling soundtrack albums. People who were too young at the time probably have no idea how those soundtrack albums ruled the radio airwaves in 1987 and 1988.
It gave new life to chestnuts of the ’50s and ’60s like “Love is Strange” and “Do You Love Me?”. Newer songs from the film became hits, too: “I Had the Time of My Life” got massive airplay, and won the Oscar for Best Song. “Hungry Eyes” hit the Top 10, unfortunately breathing new life into the career of morose singer-songwriter Eric Carmen. But most important to the movie at hand, a song called “She’s Like the Wind” went to #3, a little tune sung by the star of Dirty Dancing himself, Patrick Swayze.
So it stands to reason that between a hit movie and a hit song, Swayze became a worldwide superstar. But more than that, he became a worldwide sex symbol. Similar to Titanic a decade later, most of Dirty Dancing‘s box office take was repeat business, with lustful women, crazy about Swayze, paying to see the movie over, and over, and over. It got so insane during the filming of Road House, that they had to hire extra security just to deal with all the crazed female fans who were literally trying to rip Swayze’s clothes off.
So, when Road House was released, the film’s primary audience was women. They were probably spurred on by word of mouth that you could actually see Patrick Swayze’s naked ass in this movie! And as you might have guessed, men stayed away in droves.
Which is strange, because Road House is a guy movie to the core. It was even produced by über-action guy Joel Silver, who knows a thing or two about guy movies. (Silver is already well-represented on this site, as well as a Repeat Offender for Xanadu and Hudson Hawk.) When you’re watching a movie and you see the words “A Silver Pictures Production”, you always know what’s coming next: slick action sequences, car chases, martial arts, guys flying through windows, naked women, fistfights with big thudding punches, and of course, more exploding cars than you could possibly ever count.
I can’t imagine how those theaters full of women reacted to a high-testosterone, rifle-pumping action flick like Road House. Whatever the reaction, it sealed the movie’s fate. After a couple of months, Road House was gone from theaters. It was regarded by many critics as one of the worst films of 1989, and it even got five Razzie nominations, including Worst Picture and Worst Actor for Patrick Swayze. In the minds of most, that was probably the end of that.
(However, looking over the list of the other Razzie nominees for 1989, I have to say that, other than Star Trek V, I don’t remember any of these movies. I mean, what the hell is Lock-Up? What the hell is Speed Zone? What the hell is Her Alibi? I challenge you to name who starred in any of those movies without clicking on the links. Road House looks a lot more memorable in retrospect, doesn’t it?)
But then a funny thing happened: Namely, the ’90s. And in that decade, the number of cable channels exploded, all of which needed 24-hour programming. So the rights to lots of cheesy action movies were scooped up, and those movies put into heavy rotation. In particular, TBS, the so-called “superstation”, bought up the entire MGM film library, which just happened to include Road House. And it wasn’t long before they discovered the movie was drawing phenomenal ratings; Perhaps Road House is the very reason TBS is a “superstation”.
And it just snowballed from there, and now the movie has become a bona fide camp classic. So much so that an all-new deluxe edition DVD was released in 2005, featuring short interviews with the cast, and not one, but two commentary tracks: One with the director, and one with Kevin Smith and his Clerks/Clerks II co-producer Scott Mosier.
Not only that, but the movie spawned a direct-to-DVD sequel, Road House 2: Last Call, starring Jonathon Schaech (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Jake Busey, and Will Patton. I’ll talk more about the sequel later on in this recap, but suffice to say it’s Road House In Name Only. It has little in common with the original film, other than the title and a few reused lines of dialogue.
And then there’s the very strange case of the off-Broadway stage version. Descriptively titled Road House: The Stage Version of the Cinema Classic That Starred Patrick Swayze Except This One Stars Taimak from the 80’s Cult Classic ‘The Last Dragon‘ Wearing a Blonde Mullet Wig (RH:TSVotCCTSPSETOSTft8CCTLDWaBMW for short), it played in New York’s West Village in 2003 and 2004. Reportedly, the producers of the play had a lot of difficulty securing the rights to the screenplay, because both MGM and Joel Silver disavowed all ownership.
Unfortunately, I was never able to see RH:TSVotCCTSPSETOSTft8CCTLDWaBMW live on stage. From what I hear, the fight scenes were staged like dance sequences (the producers referred to the play as a “fightsical”), and the script was played absolutely straight, and there was even a video screen that showed parts of the action (most likely, the parts where a monster truck is smashing things). If not for multiple reviews confirming the existence of this play, I’d have a hard time believing something so ridiculous ever really happened. I mean, Swayze didn’t even have blonde hair in the movie—so why was Taimak wearing a blonde wig? But the movie itself is a monument to excess, so it should be no surprise that it inspires other people to go just as over the top. (Hell, look at the length of this recap.)
Before posting this recap, I decided to go the extra mile and listen to the director’s commentary. Sadly, it’s not terribly insightful. Director Rowdy Herrington (yes, his name really is “Rowdy”) allows long stretches of the movie to go by without comment. And when he does talk, it’s boring technical film-school stuff. It makes you want to reach through the screen, and shake him hard and go, hello? Did you not notice the guy’s face being slammed through a table just now?
On top of all that, I waited years to hear how someone named “Rowdy” would talk, and it’s not at all what I expected. I thought he would be a real good ole boy, and talk like Rosco P. Coltrane, but his voice is flat and accent-free. (Regardless, throughout this recap I’ll be including some of the rare bits of interesting information I gleaned from his commentary.)
So, even with the new DVD, I can’t tell you much about the genesis of the story. The core idea seems to be that they wanted to do a classic Western, only updated for modern times. And nothing says “modern times” like a monster truck. I don’t know the exact process that went into writing the screenplay, but I imagine a guy sitting in front of a word processor, cackling maniacally at whatever new insane, ridiculous line or scene he was about to put in next.
In the special features, Herrington, Swayze, and co-star Kelly Lynch all have a laugh at some of the stupid dialogue. But what they don’t realize is that the dialogue is so dumb, it becomes brilliant again. The fact that they got so many talented actors to say these lines and do these scenes kind of boggles the mind, really. Nobody is the slightest bit believable, but that’s kind of the point. You’re not really supposed to believe in any of this.
I think the main reason this film is still remembered is probably because of the cast, in particular, Patrick Swayze. I’m not going to sit here and claim that Swayze is the finest actor of our generation, because he’s not. I’m not even going to claim he makes for a great action hero, because he doesn’t. His style of acting is far more attuned to romantic leads and dance instructors. But when it comes to this role, he nails it. I can’t imagine anybody else playing this part and pulling it off the way Swayze does.
Strangely, despite making two blockbuster films in three years, Swayze’s career cooled off in the ’90s. Most of his stuff either went straight to video, or only played in limited release. This could happen to any actor, but I think what happened to Swayze in particular is that his name became synonymous with cheesy, schmaltzy, and unintentionally hilarious films. Let’s just say that if you were a director in 1996 wanting your movie to be taken seriously, about the last person you would cast in the lead is Patrick Swayze.
Or, maybe dressing like a disturbingly attractive woman is really what killed his career. Who can say for sure?
But the magic of Swayze lives on. Thanks to this movie and Ghost, he’s now a Repeat Offender. It may have taken over 15 years, but I’m glad this movie finally got the full appreciation it deserves. Now let’s get to it!