In the blockbuster realm of action stars, Patrick Swayze came as something of a surprise. Perhaps most famous for his role as rebel dancer Johnny Castle in 1987‘s Dirty Dancing, he would also star in soppy mainstream hit Ghost alongside Demi Moore, where he played… well, a ghost, resulting in one of the most infamous clay-based scenes in modern cinema.
The moment in question was designed to leave female thirty-somethings weak at the knees. For a while Pat was hot property with mums the world over, but the actor’s hot stuff status was more than mere commercial puffery. Swayze’s sexual prowess caused all manner of problems during the filming of cult action flick Road House, a raucous band of middle-aged admirers invading the star’s trailer in a pickup truck in the first of several onset incidents. One lovelorn extra struggled with simple stage directions while breathing in the same air as Pat, actually tripping and spilling drinks over a colleague after falling helplessly under his spell. In the end, the actor would have to hire bodyguards to keep the babes at bay. Oh, the irony!
With this kind of female popularity, you could be forgiven for thinking Swayze was something of a one-note wonder, but he’d take on a few grittier projects in his lifetime, actually starring in as many action movies as he did romantic comedies. Later in his career, he would admirably tackle meatier roles in movies such as Donnie Darko (2001) and Keeping Mum (2005), while a much earlier turn as Darrel Curtis in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 cult classic The Outsiders displayed an actor who was more than just a pretty face. Swayze would also star in Cold War propaganda vehicle Red Dawn (1984) and Kathryn Bigelow’s surfer heist thriller Point Break (1991), but his time as an action star will always be epitomised by one movie.
Road House isn’t an action vehicle aimed solely at men. In fact, Dirty Dancing zealots will be more than happy with Swayze’s mainstream action punt, even if the genre isn’t necessarily their cup of tea. In terms of acting range, this may as well be Johnny Castle in an alternate universe, the film’s original tagline, “The dancing’s over. Now it gets dirty” making more than a passing reference to to the film), but it’s the way the star is presented that makes Road House such irresistible fun. This is fast cars, faster fists, and in the midst of it all the mountain of nirvana that is Swayze’s Dalton, a picture-perfect bad ass who proves the forbidden fruit for a whole town of big-breasted harlots, the kind who long to be chained to his biceps and enslaved for all eternity.
The film isn’t very respectful to women, and that’s putting it lightly. From close-up shots of T&A, the kind that leave the camera drooling like a dog on a leash, to dolled-up airheads swooning over puerile acts of public thuggery, women are nothing more than ravenous kittens suckling at the teated geyser of male testosterone, but you’d have to possess a heart of stone to hate on this movie, and you’d have to be rather silly to take it at all seriously.
To be fair, it’s no wonder the chicks dig Dalton. As well as being tougher than a coffin nail, he’s presented as the most flawless human being on the entire planet (if you discount the relentless bloodshed), with an impenetrable moral code that defies human nature. Within the first ten minutes he’s handed over the keys to his 1964 Buick Riviera in an act of unexplained selflessness that stuns the recipient, an old geezer sitting on the side of the road who’s understandably perplexed by such a random act of kindness. He’s also rather protective of a blind musician whose condition the local yokels have absolutely no respect for and has a penchant for ludicrously homoerotic public displays of bare-chested tai chi that even the town’s blokes seem enamoured with. This is Bruce Lee, Clint Eastwood’s man with no name and Hugh Hefner all rolled into one hell of a beautiful mullet. Not that Swayze himself was impressed, calling the hairstyle “the bane of my existence” in his biography One Last Dance. I must say, I’m somewhat disappointed.
Road House is an unlikely high point in the action genre, one that puts the majority of musclebound schlock to shame. In the movie, Dalton is a spiritual drifter who earns his crust as a doorman, assuming the role of ‘cooler’ in the kind of hick bars that have so many broken tables and chairs the owners would have to operate a wholesale furniture operation just to break even. But Dalton is no ordinary thug-for-hire. In fact, he must be the only bouncer of nationwide fame on the entire planet, one who practices meditation in-between cleaning house, and who only rams customers’ heads through tables when they draw weapons ― which just happens to be every night.
To Dalton, being a doorman is everything; not just a profession, but a way of life. For him, ‘bouncing’ isn’t an excuse to dish out the pain, it’s a spiritual endeavour that must be respected at all costs. He has a professional code, one he fulfils by trying not to, but ultimately kicking ass. Dalton also has a degree in philosophy, which goes at least some way to explaining why an improbably beautiful doctor (Kelly Lynch) falls for him after treating his wounds, her years of education failing to stand in the way of a primitive lust for mindless violence. What was it about chicks and stone cold murderers in 80s Hollywood?
In one of the most contrived mainstream movies ever committed to celluloid, it’s no surprise when that doctor turns out to be the niece of a local store owner named Red (former Elvis bodyguard Red West), a man Dalton has already charmed with his unassuming frankness and respectful use of the word ‘sir’. Nor is it a shock when we later find out that she is actually married to and separated from local scourge Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), a megalomaniac who built his vast empire off the back of the local townsfolk, and who rules with an iron fist. Lynch, who was later cast as Dr. Elizabeth Clay in Michael Crichton’s groundbreaking medical drama ER, would prepare for the role by following a real-life medical team. To say that experience proved useless is a massive understatement in a film that’s more concerned with finding things to blow-up. “I spent a month learning how to tie off stitches,” Lynch would later reveal. “I spent a month … and they hand me a staple gun. I was so pissed off. Like, oh, this is cheating!”
When Dalton is recruited by bar owner Tilghman (Kevin Tighe) to rid his establishment of Wesley’s yokel entourage, he immediately takes exception to the plight of the common man, recruiting super cool compadre Wade Garrett (Sam Elliot) as he sets about fixing things and winning the heart of Doctor Clay, who surprisingly enough turns a little cold when she sees Dalton live up to his mythical status by ripping out a man’s throat with his bare hands Mortal Kombat style, though she seems rather less perturbed by the fact that every single member of the female cast stares at Dalton like a rapist, local tomboy-with-talent Carrie even gasping at the sight of his bare ass as if laying eyes on the celestial wonders of the galaxy. It’s interesting to note that Annette Bening was originally cast as the Doc before allegedly being fired for having a lack of onscreen chemistry with Swayze. I’m sure the movie’s infamous sex scene, a ludicrous ballet of sweat and steam, had more than a little to do with that decision.
Ironically, Swayze could have been even more synonymous with the action genre if it were not for Road House; not because his performance was bad, but because an onset knee injury would force him to turn down movies such as Andrei Konchalovsky’s buddy cop flick Tango and Cash and ultra-violent sci-fi sequel Predator 2. Those roles instead went to Kurt Russel and Danny Glover, respectively, Swayze opting for the much less physically demanding Ghost. This would turn out to be a couple of bullets dodged (pun intended), since Ghost would bag itself two Oscars, beating the likes of Dances with Wolves, Pretty Woman and Home Alone to become the highest-grossing box office smash of 1990. Fantastic for Swayze’s career, but if you’re an action fan the thought of the actor going nose-to-nose with cinema’s dreadlocked alien marauder is a curious prospect we will sadly never see.
This may seem absurd to you, but Swayze was the real deal when it came to rough and tumble action, having been trained by kickboxing champion Benny Urquidez, who was actually an uncredited henchman in the film. Urquidez was a black belt in nine different disciplines of martial arts, which meant by the time the shoot was over, Swayze had been schooled in a plethora of deadly combat forms that included street fighting, boxing, kickboxing, karate, jiujitsu, Taekwondo, hapkido, judo and tai chi. So impressed with Swayze’s abilities was Urquidez that he actually pushed for the actor to become a competitive kickboxer. Still think you could take him on in real life? Thought not.
Swayze flaunts his newly acquired skills in a bare-chested brawl with Marshall Teague’s Jimmy, the hard-as-nails henchman who puts his yokel brethren to shame by wiping out the Double Deuce’s severely unprepared rabble, and even Dalton’s ageing mentor, Garrett, before taking on the muscular main course. Dalton’s showdown with Jimmy is a bone-crunching classic that triggers a gobsmacking shift in tone for a movie that begins as a slapstick free-for-all before racing towards a bloodthirsty climax of startling proportions. We go from humorous brawls with real-life pro wrestlers (hardcore legend Terry Funk) to seriously dark territory, the film’s deliriously uneven screenplay smacking us in the face with a series of heartless murders and the kind of excessive, coldblooded shootings that wouldn’t look out of place in Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent sci-fi satire Robocop. In a movie wired to contrivance, it’s a truly staggering development.
Road House is a whirlwind of action mayhem, the kind of production where everyone did their own stunts and ultimately paid the price. So intense was the shoot that Swayze famously claimed he was worried he’d be able to finish with his life intact, and you can just imagine the close shaves he was subjected to in the battle-hardened stunt arena of the late 1980s. The action formula has evolved immensely since the days of cheap plywood sets and dodgy sound effects — just look at state of the art movies like the John Wick series — but one thing I miss is that aura of lawless mayhem, the sight of a stuntman coming perilously close to death or a thousand and one extras flying across the room with the kind of reckless abandon that has all but vanished in 21st century Hollywood. That’s not to say stunts aren’t still incredibly dangerous, but they’re more expertly controlled, CGI now shouldering much of the burden.
Road House is much more rough and ready, the Pale Rider of doormen movies, with Swayze as the calm and collected preacher who strolls into town with the divine gift of ass whooping, so it should come as no surprise that many of the movie’s characters share their names with mythical figures from the old west, though I’ll leave that one for you to figure out. In the end, the spiritual Dalton inevitably loses his cool, abandoning his bouncer ethics as the all-powerful Brad Wesley ramps up the stakes, but if the police really are in Wesley’s pocket as the townsfolk claim, why doesn’t he just have Dalton arrested at the first sign of trouble? I mean, multiple murder should be enough of a reason to put the town drifter behind bars for good, right?
Sometimes you just have to switch off and embrace the silliness.