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‘Road House’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 19, 1989

In "Road House," Patrick Swayze is Dalton, king of the coolers. A cooler, according to the film, is a kind of bar bouncer. He's the guy who's brought in when the situation gets too hot for the bouncer -- the bouncer's bouncer.

And with this, the educational portion of our broadcast comes to a close.

"Road House," the latest product from Joel Silver's Silver Pictures, the team that made "Die Hard," "Lethal Weapon," "Predator" and "Action Jackson," is an ugly commingling of old Westerns, Zen chic and kung fu movies. Sleekly muscled, with cloaked eyes and loose-fitting Italian clothes, Dalton is an Armani marshal in a Wild West of neon and Miller Lite. A master of martial arts, he stands motionless through the long nights, his back against the bar, sipping coffee, black, waiting for some thug to put his cigarette out in somebody's face. "My goodness," his expression reads, "What appalling manners!!" Setting down his mug, he'll wander over for a conversation with the gentleman, who, not being in a talkative mood, forces him to rearrange the brute's features.

See, Dalton doesn't like violence. He has a degree in philosophy. From NYU, no less. He must have done heavy reading in the Stoics, because early on we see him stitching up a knife wound in his shoulder. Later, when a foxy lady doctor, played by Kelly Lynch, asks if he would like an anesthetic for the nine staples she's about to put in his side to close another cut, he declines. "Pain don't hurt," he says. Thank you, Socrates.

But wait, there's more juicy dialogue between these two. Impressed by the number of broken bones and stitches on his chart, not to mention his skill with a needle and thread, she tries to establish a rapport. "Do you always win?" she asks.

"Nobody wins a fight," he replies.

Convinced he's a peace-loving hombre, the doctor drops by his place of work, a bar called the Double Deuce, just in time to watch him bust up a few kneecaps. Before long, they're going out for coffee. Black.

Dalton has been hired by the owner of the Double Deuce to make the place suitable for decent folks to come and spend their money. The Double Deuce is the kind of place where they "sweep up the eyeballs after closing." Dalton changes all that, mostly by virtue of his manly example. Basically, Dalton tells his crew of young bouncers, he has only three rules: 1. Never underestimate your opponent; 2. Take it outside; 3. Be nice.

A fourth (unspoken) rule is: Never rip out an opponent's throat unless you're really, really mad.

Full of gratuitous mayhem, head-bashing, gay-bashing and woman-bashing, "Road House" has a malicious, almost putrid tone. Directed by the aptly named Rowdy Herrington, it updates the old Western formula of the honorable marshal who marches in to clean up a lawless Western town, amplifying the music (by the Jeff Healey Band) and the level of destruction in the process.

"Road House" lays out its story with the subtlety of a wrestling match, and probably with less sharpness or savvy. Dalton's true adversary is a sinister local businessman named Wesley, who uses his gang of louts to squeeze a healthy cut of the take from the honest folks in town. Played by Ben Gazzara, Wesley is a happy sybarite who takes genuine, sadistic pleasure in his crimes. Though there is one funny moment when Wesley is seen cruising recklessly in his convertible, singing along to "Sh-Boom Sh-Boom" on the radio, the character is too crudely conceived to be either funny or engaging. He's a pig, and Gazzara can't make him anything more.

The problem is, Dalton doesn't come across all that much better. When his old friend Wade (Sam Elliott) shows up, he refers to a man Dalton killed some years back in Memphis -- an incident that has left him emotionally scarred and, we assume, unable to settle down and find peace. And danged if history don't repeat itself. His relationship with Doc is also far from ennobling, especially with Lynch in the role. Though cast as a doctor, Lynch can't work up the brainpower to change expressions -- her features move in glacial time.

"Road House" is rated R and contains extreme violence, brutal language, nudity and, again, prison jokes.

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