Road House

The 1980s had a special knack for pairing A-list talent to B-movie scripts in an effort to sell its audience something so far beyond anything it ever wanted or needed that one cannot help but to stand back and whistle softly in admiration at the sheer bravado it took to marshal the kind of resources required to make a movie like Road House, and then to go ahead and actually make a movie like Road House. Whether you like this movie or like it very much, the result is the same: a sense of pity for everyone who doesn’t understand why a movie this bad is so freaking good, and a sense of admiration for the mad scientists who successfully pitched this project, spent millions making it, got people to see it, and never once used those remarkable powers of persuasion to promote world peace. God bless Hollywood and its criminal misuse of talent.

Anyway, Road House. The story takes place in the sleepy city/town/backwater/whatever of Jasper, Missouri. Don’t worry that you can’t immediately place the location. The writers most likely threw a dart at a map of the United States until they found a spot sufficiently in the boondocks that they could write whatever they wanted about it, and nobody would care to correct them. There is this bar there called the Double Deuce and some high-roller wants to invest all kinds of money into this dump, even though it’s the sort of place where people go to get into knife fights and endure alcohol poisoning, but not always in that order. To fancy the place up, he needs some security. But not just any security. He needs the best, so he goes to New York City and lures away James Dalton, the best “cooler” in the business. Dalton is a mysterious fella with a Ph.D in philosophy, conducts surgery on himself, knows secret kung-fu moves, and drives around in either a Mercedes or ’65 Riviera, depending on how low he wants his profile. He figures, why not drop everything in the most expensive market in the country, and moves to Jasper to help clean up the most dangerous bar in the most crooked town in the most under-policed county in the Midwest. Pay no attention to those California mountains in the background. Moving on.

One could go further into the story about how Dalton cleans up the Double Deuce and runs afoul of local kingpin Brad Wesley, who literally lives right next door to the farm where Dalton is hanging out like some kind of bareknuckle ronin. One could also discuss how Dalton comes across Dr. Elizabeth “Doc” Clay, an unholy mash-up of farmer’s daughter, Playboy bunny and M.D., an inevitably starts having nekkid funtime with her in local swimming holes and in haylofts and whatever. One could bring up how Dalton’s grizzled mentor Wade Garrett shows up so he can die, or how Wesley routinely terrorizes the entire town by doing things like having a henchman drive a monster truck through the showroom of a local car dealership. One could bring up that Dalton is the reluctant gunslinger type because he once ripped out some dude’s throat with a crazy tiger claw punch, and then proceeds to use it anyway at the end of the movie when having a riverside karate fight with Wesley’s top goon…and still feels the need to roundhouse kick the poor bastard into the water as he’s already gurgling to death on his own blood. One could mention that the luckiest person in the entire thing is Cody, the Double Duece’s bandleader, because he’s played by Jeff Healy, who was blind in real life and couldn’t actually see this movie once it came out.

One could mention all of these things and it still wouldn’t matter because none of these are reasons to see Road House or to sit through it, or to even find fault in it. The greatest thing about a movie like Road House is the nearly religious kind of experience it delivers. You either surrender to this thing with a kind of blind faith that it will be enjoyable, or you abandon all empirical evidence to the contrary because the story in your head demands it. Either way, after almost two hours of watching a mostly shirtless Patrick Swayze put the chop-socky on drunkards and hired muscle in a bid to convince us that there is this secret fraternity of elite bouncers who don’t even call themselves bouncers – and that people like him are needed to stop small-time crooks who can demolish entire towns without fear of law enforcement – you come to the conclusion that there is no degree of logic that can either make this work. But it doesn’t need it. Road House is like a black hole; once you cross the event horizon of having accepted that our hero is still a hero despite working for a rich entrepreneur who has built a bar so big it will eventually turn the entire town into a legion of punchy alcoholics, then nothing else matters, does it? Of course it doesn’t.

The moment of truth that proves it all is a throwaway scene where Wesley punches one of his minions in the face and then criticizes him for bleeding. We are already willing to accept that a guy who looks like your weird Uncle Murray is going to somehow give Patrick Swayze a run for his money in a fistfight, so we didn’t really need this bit of gratuitous meanness to establish the villain. But Road House did it anyway because it both loves and hates us at the same time, and there just aren’t that many movies with such a dysfunctional relationship with its audience. Unicorns are more common, really. Which is why Road House is such a treasure. A barechested, tequila-soaked, throat-punching, monster trucking, doctor-plucking treasure.

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