Here’s something fun: Imagine the conversations that Terry Funk, the eternally grizzled pro wrestler, and John Doe, the co-leader of the great art-punk band X, had on the set of Road House. By 1989, the year that this beautifully ridiculous action flick hit theaters, those two were legends in their respective disreputable fields. Funk was a former NWA World Heavyweight Champion, and Doe co-wrote maybe the two best albums to come out of the early L.A. hardcore scene. And yet they’re both relegated to total bit parts here, both playing skeezy henchmen who get fired from the Double Deuce nightclub within a day of Patrick Swayze coming to town. They’re both really good, too: Funk gruff and mean, Doe slick and creepy and mustachioed. (Doe also stands the same way to fire a shotgun that he does when he plays guitar—a nice touch.) But that doesn’t mean either one gets a whole lot of screen time. In fact, Funk finally gets dispatched off-camera, while Doe at least gets the dignity of a quick onscreen throwing-knife to the gut.
Still, that duo’s unlikely inclusion here at all counts as evidence that this movie knew what the fuck it was doing. Road House has a persistent rep among assholes as a so-bad-it’s-good farce, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a film that recognizes and embraces its own absurdity. And it does so many of the little things right, right down to the casting of its faceless henchmen. It’s got main villain Ben Gazzara crooning along to “Sh-Boom” while veering his red sports car all over the road. It’s got a monster truck smashing up a car dealership for virtually no reason. It’s got a bar owner describing his own business as “the kind of place where they sweep the eyeballs up after closing.” It’s got one lead villain start a fight by barking, “I used to fuck guys like you in prison,” leading to countless “Is that badass? I guess that’s badass” middle-school debates.
Virtually every scene has at least one minor touch that will make you cackle with delight if you have any soul whatsoever. But it’s not a comedy; it’s a strange vision with its own sense of internal logic. It takes a deeply unlikely premise—the world’s best bouncer takes on a small-town criminal mob—and does it as well as anyone could possibly ever do it. It’s one of the greatest action movies ever made, no qualifiers necessary, and the fact that it’s streaming on Netflix now is a pretty great reason to get up in the morning.
Consider, if you will, the scene where Swayze meets love interest Kelly Lynch, a dubiously hot small-town doctor. He checks into the hospital after finally getting a knife wound bad enough that he can’t sew it up himself; she starts out annoyed that she has to deal with this no-good bar-fighter, but she’s also fascinated with how someone with as calm a demeanor as Swayze can find himself getting so many knife wounds. She notes that his medical record claims that he earned a degree in philosophy from NYU, since this movie takes place in a world where your medical records also include every salient fact about you. And the brief conversation that follows allows Swayze to deliver two amazing, iconic lines: “Pain don’t hurt” and “Nobody ever wins a fight.” From there, those two do most of their communicating in meaningful glances and convulsive wall-humps, and I buy it completely.
Swayze’s character, Dalton, is one of those great fantastical action-movie creations. He’s so good at nightclub bouncing that he’s apparently a celebrity in dive-bar circles—good enough that the Double Deuce’s owner would travel cross-country in an attempt to lure him to a new job. He doesn’t appeal to be in it for the money, and he’s traumatized by the whole idea of violence, owing to an old incident when he had to tear out a guy’s throat. But he seems to love his nomadic existence, moving from city to city and cleaning up nasty bars, because, I suppose, when you’re great at something, you learn to love it. He buys shitty cars so that it won’t be a big deal when nightclub patrons slash his tires and smash his windshield. He rents ascetic apartments from eccentric local codgers and makes friends with everyone in town. He does sweaty tai chi in the morning, and a local bartender gasps with ecstasy when she gets an eyeful of his ass.
There has never been a human being anything like Dalton, but that’s not a problem. The movie surrounds him with people like Sam Elliott as his sly, craggy mentor, or blind blooz-rock guitarist Jeff Healy as himself. (One of the movie’s more far-fetched elements: The idea of a nightclub landscape ruled by Stevie Ray Vaughn clones. Were the late ’80s really like that?) Awesomely named director Rowdy Herrington depicts the Double Deuce as the most extreme Hollywood vision of a flyover-country dive bar, the type of place where people pretty much just go to brawl. Even the hopeless-drunk pickup lines (“Whaddaya say you and me get nipple to nipple?”) seem to come from some bizarre heightened reality.
The simple arc of the Double Deuce, from blood-flecked fight pit to the sort of place where a big-hairedp ’80s-hot lady like Kelly Lynch feels comfortable showing up in an immaculately white dress, would’ve been enough for a movie. But Road House also gives us the vision of the longtime character actor Gazzara as a smug, rich asshole who charges everyone in town for protection and yells things like, “Play something with balls” at hapless nightclub entertainers. Gazzara takes credit for things like 7-11 coming to his shitty small town, and he buzzes local farms with his helicopter just because he likes to watch the horses get agitated. He wears a white fedora and an ascot, and claims that he grew up hard on the streets of Chicago. His army of mercenaries includes Doe, Funk, a tall guy, a fat guy, a monster truck driver, and a guy who used to fuck guys like you in prison, and he entertains them with mansion dance parties where naked girls get thrown in the pool. He is a perfect shithead. And while most small-town crime bosses might not worry about getting into blood feuds with local bouncers, Road House conjures a universe just alien enough that it seems to make perfect sense.
With its deadpan tone and its constant zen aphorisms, Road House fuses the action movie and the art film just as completely as something like Le Samourai or Ghost Dog. It got credit for none of that. Instead, it earned itself a handful of Razzie nominations and a 40 percent on the Tomatometer, the sort of thing that makes me want to go back in time and slap 60 percent of movie critics and the entire Razzie nominating committee upside the head. More recently, it’s been remembered because of an episode of Family Guy in which Peter watches the movie and then spends the next half-hour kicking everyone and everything he sees. It’s dumb. Road House deserves better. Let’s rescue it from ironist dickbags and remember it as the all-time classic it is.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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