The New Cult Canon: Road House

The New Cult Canon: Road House

(Programming note: I had originally planned only four movies for Camp Month, but since there are five Thursdays in July, I've decided to squeeze one more onto the schedule. Depending on your perspective, I'm sorry or you're welcome.)

"Pain don't hurt." —Patrick Swayze as Jeff Dalton in Road House

It's like the sound of one hand clapping: Say the words "pain don't hurt," and a gentle breeze rustles the cobwebs from your mind. Last year, my colleague Noel Murray wrote a fine feature for this publication called "The Way Of The Swayze: How To Be A Thoughtful Hunk," and though "pain don't hurt" didn't make his list of Patrick Swayze aphorisms, it doesn't get any purer than that. (To be fair, Swayze does give you a lot of options.) Where I come from—and where everybody else comes from, too—pain tends to hurt, and the amount of hurt increases in direct proportion to the amount of pain inflicted. But in Swayze's world, hurt is just a state of mind that pain can only access if you lack the mental discipline to turn it away. And the provincial misuse of "don't" is there to make sure his core audience (i.e. guys who like Movies For Guys Who Like Movies) doesn't cast him off as an elitist. Because when you're a bouncer with a philosophy degree from NYU, people might think you're a little fruity.

More on Swayze the Zen philosopher in a minute. For now, let us stand in awe of Road House, a supremely vulgar, winningly goofy entertainment that to my mind set the actor apart from his action-movie peers. Some of Swayze's shtick here is familiar to other action heroes: Nearly all of them since Clint Eastwood's stoic "The Man With No Name" keep the chatter to a minimum, Steven Seagal was also known to dabble in Eastern mumbo-jumbo, and Jean-Claude Van Damme could fill out a mullet to make the rednecks in the audience swoon. Yet what's unique about Swayze is his feminine appeal; Van Damme and Seagal could kick all the ass they'd like, but neither of them could have smoldered their way through Ghost or Dirty Dancing and into the fantasies of pre-teen girls and middle-aged women alike. He's a tough guy and a sex symbol, and the mix of the two makes Road House uniquely and hilariously pansexual: For all the high-heels, miniskirts, and leggy blondes trotted out for Joe Six-Pack's delectation, Swayze is the real pin-up here.

True story: When I worked in a suburban Georgia movie theater from 1987 to 1990, I can recall two times when I heard actual gasps coming from the audience. The first was in Dangerous Liaisons, when Uma Thurman revealed the stunning figure underneath those drab, baggy late-18th-century bedclothes. The second was in Road House, when Swayze slips out of bed in the morning, casually allowing the sheets to drop past his naked backside. This galvanizing moment is underlined by an awed reaction shot from his waitress friend, who looks like the mysteries of the universe have just been revealed to her. Throughout the film, Swayze's soft features—the feathered '80s hair, the sensitive blue eyes, a body that's impeccably cut and toned rather than grotesquely muscled in Schwarzenegger mode—are accentuated to a degree that borders on pornography. How else to explain this Vaseline-lensed sequence in which his morning workout ritual has the quality of an exotic dance?

In the dusty hicktown of Jasper, Missouri, Swayze's brand of Eastern-influenced meditative techniques clearly isn't an ordinary sight, but then, his occupation isn't ordinary, either. All bars and nightclubs have bouncers, but Swayze's Dalton doesn't scan fake IDs and usher out the occasional lout. He's what's called a "cooler," a bouncer who directs all the other bouncers, and he's considered the best in the business. Until seeing Road House, I was unaware that such a rich, multi-tiered bouncer subculture even existed, one where the best of the best could draw enough of a salary to afford a Mercedes with a built-in cassette deck. But Dalton is the type of guy who can transform a shit-kicking, backwoods dive into a slick nightspot run with the strong-armed efficiency of a gulag.

As the film opens, a club owner (Kevin Tighe) lures Dalton to Jasper as part of a plan to reinvest in a dump called the Double Deuce—or, as aging cooler Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott) indelibly refers to it later in the film, "the Double Douche." Tighe calls it "the kind of place where they sweep up the eyeballs after closing," and he isn't kidding: The exterior looks like an old barn, the band plays behind chicken wire to protect it from flying beer bottles, the bartender steals from the till, and the meathead bouncers are responsible for more bar-wide mêlées than they break up. (Are fights where everyone is throwing punches and busting chairs commonplace in roughneck bars, or do they only happen in the movies?) Dalton silently observes the operation on his first night, then delivers this stirring address to the staff:

Next time you get called a cocksucker, remember it's only "two words combined to elicit a proscribed response," which is Dalton's fancy way of describing his "sticks-and-stones" pacifism. The quirks and colloquialisms in the dialogue are part of what makes Road House so much guilty fun. A few other choice examples:

"Calling me 'sir' is like putting an elevator in an outhouse. Don't belong."

"I heard you had balls big enough to cum in a dump truck, but you don't look like much to me."

"Does a hobby horse have a wooden dick?"

"That gal has got entirely too many brains to have an ass like that."

"I see you found my trophy room, Dalton. The only thing missing is your ass."

That last line is spoken by Ben Gazzara, who seems to be having the time of his life as Brad Wesley, the nefarious rich guy who runs the town and takes 10 percent in protection money off all the businesses. A band of well-armed thugs and at least one monster truck are around as enforcers, and with his ascot and fedora, he seems to have acquired his wardrobe by raiding Peter Bogdanovich's closet. Wesley's showdown with Dalton, who sticks up for the good-'ol-boy townsfolk under Wesley's thumb, takes Road House out of the rarified world of bouncers and coolers and into more conventional explosion-filled action fare. The one wrinkle is that Dalton is haunted by a dark secret: Back in Memphis, he once ripped a man's throat from his neck, and he fears his own lethal capabilities. (Incidentally, I'd place Swayze's throat-removing claw-hand maneuver right up there with Ralph Macchio's unstoppable crane technique in The Karate Kid and John Saxon's above-the-waist fighting style in Enter The Dragon in the annals of white-guy kung-fu.)

One of the qualities that separates Road House from lesser Swayze vehicles is that it's a Joel Silver production—glossy, vulgar, testosterone-driven, shamelessly commercial, and given to catchphrases. When Silver agreed to produce the Coen brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy to the tune of $40 million, they tried to give him a catchphrase worthy of Die Hard's "Yippie-ki-ay, motherfucker," but "You know, for kids" didn't quite take off. Here, Swayze's Dalton is greeted on several occasions with the feeble, "I thought you'd be bigger," which never quite seeped into the national vernacular. Still, Silver's more-is-more instincts help lift Road House into the camp stratosphere, when in other hands it might have been drab and all business. Action vehicles built around stoic heroes tend to take themselves too seriously, but casting ringers like Gazzara and Elliott in key supporting roles is a good indication that Silver and company were happy to embrace the film's florid excesses.

There's no justifying Road House as a good film, exactly, but it's so entertaining that it provokes philosophical musings about how "good" even applies sometimes. It has many laugh-out-loud moments, and though some of them are intentional and some perhaps less so, there's precious little to be gained by parsing out one type of laugh from another. And that's one of the pitfalls in judging camp movies in general: Where do the filmmakers stop and the viewers begin? What can be credited to their vision and what can be credited to our camp sensibilities kicking into gear?

Road House blurs the line often—or just obliterates it—and perhaps the best solution is just to lower your defenses and enjoy the many moments of sublime ridiculousness: Gazzara swerving back and forth across a road to the tune of "Sh-boom"; a studly bouncer giving the best excuse possible for banging a random floozy in the storage room ("But I was on my break!"); a monster truck laying waste to the showroom at a car lot; Swayze's overly modest summation of his academic pursuits ("Man's search for faith. That sort of shit"); and a finale staged in a taxidermist's paradise. It's brilliant. It's idiotic. It's Road House.

Coming Up: Camp Month continues…

Next week: Manos: The Hands Of Fate vs. Troll 2

July 24: The Devil's Advocate

July 31: Showgirls

August 7: Back to business with Sexy Beast