Apr 2, 2021



If the dictionary were a living, breathing, human man and you asked him to define “road house,” he would tell you that it was a roadside establishment in a country setting, off the beaten path, where one could seek alcohol, music, dancing, and perhaps some gambling. However, if you were to ask me — an actual living, breathing, human man — to define “road house,” I would tell you, “It’s the greatest film of all time, chicken dick.”

Both of us would be right. One of us would be more right. (It’s me.)

Road House is the kind of film that (wrongly) doesn’t feel like it belongs in Patrick Swayze’s filmography. More well-known for his contributions to the date-movie genre — Ghost, Dirty Dancing — or his closeted sobbing pedophile genre — Donnie Darko — and certainly not to speak ill of the dead, but Road House's joyous, unfettered insanity and manliness feels much more like a Kurt Russell vehicle. (Kurt Russell was a handy example because for the first fifteen years of my life, I was convinced they were the same person. Watch Road House and Tango & Cash back-to-back and tell me I’m wrong.) Sure, Swayze tussled in the action genre with Next of Kin, Red Dawn, Black Dog, the immeasurable if equally absurd Point Break, and that one which was clearly a Mad Max rip-off, but none of them ever caught cultural fire like Road House did. And none of them have its rewatchability, strange uneven tone, or its amount of Red West.

Frankly, it’s kind of a shame that even after having contributed three mainstays of the action genre with slightly ironic classics that Swayze couldn’t find surer footing with future solid action fare. For as celebrated as they are today, that Road House, Red Dawn, and Point Break didn’t solidify Swayze as at least an action semi-icon seems strange, but perhaps it was his ability to visit several different genres (often for the ladies) that made such an action-icon status elude him. Based on what kind of person he was, he would have really been tickled to have his name spoken in the same breath as Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Sadly, his last high-profile film project was a cameo in the Dirty Dancing sequel no one asked for.

Road House is a tough film to explain to those who haven’t seen it, and not because the plot can’t be cracked, because it certainly can — it’s a 1989 modern western which sees Swayze’s Dalton, he of the mysterious past, cleaning up a corrupt town and sending a handful of good-ol’-boys to their earth boxes pushing up daisies. No, what can’t be cracked is the extremely odd tone, which bounces back and forth between the kind of fun-and-fancy-freeness indicative of the ’80s and a sort of angry viciousness that never seems to gel. [Spoiler: The most telling example of this comes in the dispatching of the film’s primary villain, Wesley, as played by Ben Gazzara, in which members of the town he’s been victimizing kill him in cold blood. He’s shot full of holes and dies bloodily, but then everyone laughs when an idiot among them makes a stupid comment about a stuffed bear.] However, admittedly, it’s this same uneven tone that makes Road House such an entertaining watch. Having fun while spilling blood, being sexually explicit while also vying for romance, Road House plays by its own schizophrenic rules to incredible results.

As for my Kurt Russell theory, here's another thing to keep in mind: close your eyes and picture each of our manly mulleted men, Russell and Swayze, uttering the line, "Pain don't hurt." Go on, indulge me.

Now, let me guess: your version of Kurt Russell said it with a wink and a smile, right? That beautifully cocky but lovable delivery Russell has perfected over the years? Because when Swayze says it, his face is still, stoic, and serious. He means it. And that's the difference.

Road House became a midnight movie in recent years, as people began to embrace the sheer lunacy brought on by a film that has so much going on you don’t know where to look. And MGM, its home studio, knows of its marquee value. A direct-to-video sequel was released in 2006, starring a cast of actors who generally only appear in direct-to-video sequels, while a remake with Ronda Rousey stepping into Dalton’s shoes (lordy) under the direction of The Notebook’s Nick Cassavetes (lordy) has been threatening to emerge since 2017. What all this means is the Road House name still means something, and using that simple two-word title suggests to the audience a certain kind of experience, successful or not: uncorrupted ass-kicking.

I sincerely doubt there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t seen Road House by now, but if you haven’t, that’s likely why you aren’t realizing just how empty your life has been. Once you see Road House for yourself, you will then realize you haven’t fully lived. Road House isn’t a “good” film — not by any stretch — but it is a damn fine time, with all the fight scenes, sexytime, cartoon villainy, and Sam Elliott you could want. A great soundtrack, some rafters-shooting performances, and a strange tone of broad comedy meets disturbing violence make Road House a unique experience and an essential missing component of your life. I mean, Jesus Christ, it was even directed by a guy named Rowdy. What the fuck else do you need?

Patrick Swayze’s wife shared that, in his final weeks of life, he’d expressed fear that he wouldn’t leave behind a legacy that would still have people talking about him long after he was gone. He, like the rest of us, feared that he hadn’t left a mark on this world, that he’d be forgotten. Anyone could have pointed to a half-dozen titles in his career that would ensure such a thing would never happen, regardless of which genre they prefer. And, like anyone knows, the movies that come from the collaborations of actors both remembered and forgotten are bigger than any one person; because of that, titles like Ghost, Dirty Dancing, Point Break, and The Outsiders alone would've ensured Swayze's immortality. But when it comes to Road House, one thing is certain: his character Dalton (first name or surname, we’ll never know) will long be held in high regard as one of the most infamous and celebrated action heroes of all time.

And that’s a legacy worth leaving behind.

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