Where to begin? A hundred and sixty pound bouncer, a grizzled mentor with amazing hair, a bad guy named Brad, small-town high-heels sporting M.D., perpetual tans, four different bar fights, naked asses, Deliverance-inspired henchmen in monster trucks, a rotund goon named Tinker, unintentionally hilarious one-liners delivered as if trying to inspire the back row at the Actors Studio, death, destruction, stuffed polar bears as weapons, and an underlying struggle to achieve a heightened sense of Zen wisdom.
Is it any wonder “Roadhouse,” is at the top of our list for the best ever in good/bad cinema? A film to which all other aspirants will forever be compared?
The basic story is a simple one: Dude comes to clean up town bar, meets with resistance, is pushed and tested, and ultimately triumphs. Hot chick gives him incentive to stay, Good over evil, etc. It could be called “High Noon with doormen,” or “Tombstone in a bar.” True enough, but shortsighted. Any movie that delivers lines like, “Pain don’t hurt,” deserves its own category and consideration.
Writer and director Rowdy Herrington likely wrote a script that was intended to explore the dark and demented side of bouncers, as well as what he felt was their quest to justify their lives through judicious beatings and eastern spirituality. It’s a pretty good bet that’s what the studio heard in the pitch as well. Cue problem number one, the casting of Patrick Swayze as Dalton. No first name, just Dalton. Before going any further, we feel we need to emphasize that we loved Swayze, an extremely good guy in an industry full of non-creative followers and soul-annihilating snakes. May he forever rest in the peace he deserves. But casting a 160 pound ex-classical dancer for the role of toughest cooler ever was a stretch, probably even to Swayze.
But he was at that point, thanks to “Dirty Dancing,” at the top of his game, and the studio likely pushed for his presence in this movie. It wouldn’t be the first time a writer’s idea has gone south after a meeting with the dark-suited ingenuity killers. Herrington didn’t have much of a CV, having only helmed 1988’s forgettable “Jack’s Back,” about a serial killer replicating Jack the Ripper’s original spree.
He’d also done some TV. But in spite of those two strikes, he did have a very filmable script. Someone eventually connected the dots between the red-hot Swayze and a storyline that would allow his image to stretch. (Not that he hadn’t ever played tough… see “Uncommon Valor” and “The Outsiders.”) From there, however, the casting got strange.
Sam Elliot was pegged as the growling mentor for the brash and talented Dalton. We don’t quibble with him, though it takes a little time to understand him, warbling out lines beneath the walrus mustache.
Kelly Lynch as the doctor makes no sense. Here’s a woman with a Top-10 body and patrician cheekbones, decked out in a white lab coat, pumps, and crowned with Wynonna Judd’s hair. This “country doc” has returned to a crappy little town that’s not only beneath her, but is run by her strong-arming ex-husband, a psychopath some 30 years her senior.
That would be Ben Gazzara.
The Father from “An Early Frost?” Al Capone?
At least he kept the fedora.
Add to this a litany of double-chromeX genetic mutations playing back-water barflies and supplying Gazzara’s dipshit army, as well as women who would have been considered hot if cities with over 25 thousand residents didn’t exist. There’s also Red West, the former Elvis bodyguard who plays Lynch’s Uncle, as well as one of the many citizens tormented by Gazzara and his crew. Upon meeting Swayze’s Dalton for the first time, West tells him how he ended up staying for years in that cruddy, backhole town. “Married an ugly woman,” he proclaims. “Don’t ever do that.”
So how did this stew of serious talent and others come together to make this good/bad, cinematic masterpiece? Once again, we turn to the writing. Pedestrian to be sure, but simply plotted, with a clear vision of where it was going. We’re not prepared to say that by the time they got to the end of production, they weren’t all in on the joke, and playing it for laughs. Maybe they were. But the acting is so over-the-top, the inflections so stilted, the close-ups so eye-poppingly hilarious, we have no choice but to believe those involved truly thought they were onto something. A modern day western to be sure, but there’s too much emphasis on spirituality to dismiss it that simply. Dalton’s early morning Tai-Chi, his late night readings of Jim Harrison, his proclamation, upon meeting Lynch, that he studied philosophy at NYU. When she asks what discipline, he says, “Man’s search for faith, that sort of shit.” Dalton even warehouses his Mercedes in favor of an old American beater. This is a man’s man, one who can quote Rousseau while tearing out someone’s throat.
You see where we’re going here. The only way this one could have failed is had it been played for laughs, and then it would have been a miserable mess.
As it is, there isn’t a slack or unfunny scene, made all the more so by the hammy display put on by everyone except Swayze and Lynch. As conflicted as Dalton is, and as dangerous as he can be, he is, for better or worse, the moral center of the film. And Lynch is there to help him realize it. Without question, the most authentic scenes are the ones they share.
When she says he’s not a nice guy, she means it. But she’s still there for him, and maybe that’s why, in the end, it all somehow works.
We could go over all the plot points, and get into even more minutiae, but we’re pretty sure anyone reading this knows the movie as well as we do, inside and out. We’ll even watch it on TBS, complete with commercials and horrible edits. Without overstatement, this one has everything in spades to get it the good/bad checkered flag: Gratuitous violence, gratuitous sex, superbly bad one-liners, and a kill list that would make Rambo blush.
Finally, the checklist –
Takes itself seriously – check.
Leading man an A-list star – check.
Buffoonish bad guy – check.
Big Lebowski Narrator? Joe Somebody’s Ex-wife? Cosmo Vittelli? Too Wong Foo? Not a chance. For us, you all will forever be Wade Garrett, Elizabeth “Doc” Clay, Brad Wesley, and of course, Dalton.