“To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
“Pain don’t hurt.”
—Dalton, Road House
In 1989, a major motion picture graced the silver screen that introduced the world to a new kind of action hero: the philosophical, sensitive type who could also rip out throats with his bare hands.
That motion picture was Road House, and that man was Dalton, tough-as-nails but calm-as-Buddah — someone called in to take out the trash. He did tai chi outside, he slept in a hayloft, he got stitches without any sort of numbing narcotic, and he melted female doctors into love puddles in the process. Men wanted to be him and fight him to death. Women wanted to be with him and fight him to death. He rolled into town with a trunk full of spare tires and orchestrated with military-like precision the clean-up of the Double Deuce nightclub. Also, at some point, the entire town more or less exploded. Dalton was a man; take him for all in all. We shall not look upon his like again.
The late Patrick Swayze played Dalton. At the time, Swayze was nearing the peak of his career. 1987’s Dirty Dancing helped launch him into superstardom, and in 1990 he would star in Ghost and make people everywhere wish they were making super messy pottery with him while wearing jeans and no shirt. Sandwiched between those films was Road House, where Swayze doesn’t just rise above the ludicrous material he’s working with; he embraces it, makes it his own, and wants you to know it’s okay to enjoy all this nonsense. Swayze was not an actor I think you could ever call great, but he had such an earnest charisma that it was infectious. And that charisma is on full, silly display in Road House.
Road House is a film existing squarely in the long-ago universe of the very late 80s, where denim was everywhere and if you didn’t have big hair you might as well be a corpse. Dalton makes his living as a cooler—a super bouncer who is the best in the business. There’s no bar fight he can’t quickly resolve, no skirmish he can’t squash.
Frank Tilghman (Kevin Tighe, John Locke’s jerk father from Lost) owns the Double Deuce, the aforementioned Road House of the title. The Double Deuce is in dire straights; located in the town of Jasper, Missouri, the road house is a hot box of nightly fights and drugs. Frank wants to clean the Double Deuce up and start making some money, but he needs Dalton’s skills to do it. “I thought you’d be bigger,” he tells Dalton when he first meets him. Everyone in this movie says this to Dalton at least once.
Dalton takes the job and rolls into town. The Double Deuce is one thing, with its rowdy denim crowd and women who dance badly on the bar. But what Dalton hadn’t planned on (but is nonplussed about either way) is local “businessman” Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara). It’s not entirely clear what Brad Wesley (which is probably the most WASPish name for a villain ever) does, but whatever it is, it’s crooked. He has a giant monster truck at his house, and a trophy room filled with every single animal head or skin imaginable. I’m pretty sure he has a dinosaur in there somewhere. He’s all sneering, oily charm, and he doesn’t give a damn about whom he annoys with his helicopters. Everyone in town pays money to Wesley, so I guess he’s sort of like the mafia, but instead of wiseguys at his disposal he has a motley gang of rednecks and his right-hand henchman Jimmy (Marshall Teague). Jimmy is, at least in the universe this film occupies, pure evil. He even has a big dangly cross earring—so look out!
Dalton begins to clean up the Double Deuce. He’s in the road house for no fewer than five minutes before he’s sized up every weak link and figured out a plan to fix everything. He recruits people to be his back-up bouncers and teaches them his zen method of kicking the shit out of people.
“I want you to be nice,” he tells them. “Until it’s time to not be nice.” He also teaches them not to take insults from rowdy bar folk personally.
“Being called a cocksucker isn’t personal?” someone asks.
“No,” says Dalton. “It’s two nouns combined to elicit a prescribed response.”
“What if somebody calls my mama a whore?” the man shoots back.
“Is she?” Dalton asks, raising his eyebrow and winning the hearts and minds of the entire planet.
Dalton has three simple rules: never underestimate your opponent; take it outside—never start anything inside the bar unless it’s necessary; and, finally, be nice. Before the film has ended, Dalton will break all of his rules, but it’s for a good cause. That good cause: kicking ass.
Up until now, the film has settled into a nice goofy rhythm. What’s on the screen is silly, but things are beginning to build into new levels of silliness that you aren’t expecting. And the entire time, the film plays it all straight. Everything happening is entirely ludicrous, but the film doesn’t show it. It wants you to believe this all is plausible.
Frequent bar fights land Dalton in the hospital for stitches, where he of course rejects any sort of painkillers, because, as he says, “Pain don’t hurt,” whatever that means. The doctor stitching him up is Dr. Elizabeth Clay (Kelly Lynch), who wears gigantic ’80s glasses to hide that she’s a foxy babe. Dr. Clay, or “Doc” as she’s referred to, finds out that Dalton has a degree from NYU (!). In what, she wonders?
“Philosophy,” Dalton answers (!!!!!).
That’s as far as the film is willing to go with its “Dalton is a DEGREED philosopher” angle, because when Doc asks him what type of philosophy, Dalton answers: “Man’s search for faith; that sort of shit.” In other words: “I know philosophy but I’m totally still able to kick people’s ass, now please don’t ask anymore, let’s move on and maybe have sex.”
And sex they do have. Doc and Dalton make sweaty love up in the hayloft apartment Dalton is renting on a farm, and the scene goes on and on, and it’s glorious for all the wrong reasons. Dalton may be a man of violence, but in the sack he’s all sensitivity and tenderness. Unfortunately, the nature of Dalton’s career as a man who punches people for a living can’t stay buried forever. Through the whole film, it’s hinted at that Dalton has a dark secret from his past, something he’s trying to run away from. However, Brad Wesley and his gang of rednecks aren’t going to make running away easy.
Wesley wants to extort the Double Deuce, but Dalton will have none of it. This new resistance starts giving other business owners the idea that they can rebuff Wesley’s extortion. Unfortunately for these other business owners, they don’t have Dalton working for them. An auto parts store is blown up, and a car dealership is completely ruined by Wesley’s monster truck. All of this happens in broad daylight, with everyone watching. Wesley is so powerful he blatantly commits his crimes in public! Who the hell can stop this slime ball? Oh, I don’t know—perhaps a certain someone who has a degree in Philosophy of Some Sort of Shit??
An old face from Dalton’s past shows up: Wade Garrett, who we learn is the second best cooler in the biz. Garret is played by Sam Elliott, with long wavy hair and endless charm. He shows up so late in the film, though, that we know he’s only there to be colorful and then get killed so Dalton can lose his mind. Wade knows all about Dalton’s dark secret: he “cooled” someone too much in the cooler game and killed him. All of Dalton’s zen and half-naked lawn tai chi are ways for him to push down that murderous instinct. If only that dickhead Brad Wesley didn’t have it in for him.
Doc wants no part of all this mayhem and monster trucks. She wants Dalton to leave with her. But before Dalton can say yes or no, there is an explosion, caused of course by Brad Wesley’s men—most notably the psycho Jimmy. A fight between Dalton and Jimmy ensues, which results in one of the most epic and shocking lines ever in a film, followed by a scene just as epic and shocking.
During the fight, Jimmy sneers to Dalton, “I USED TO FUCK GUYS LIKE YOU IN PRISON!” Dalton may be a sensitive, intelligent guy who is fine with same-sex love, but prison rape is where he draws the fucking line, so he subsequently rips Jimmy’s goddamn throat open with his BARE HANDS.
Doc witnesses this, and is suitably horrified. Her sensitive warrior-poet bouncer is a stone-cold murderer. She runs off, and everything comes crashing down around Dalton. Wade gets stabbed, more things explode, and Dalton storms off to Wesley’s mansion, screaming “WESLEY!!!” to let him know he’s coming and hell’s coming with him. “I see you found my trophy room, Dalton,” Wesley announces during the big stand-off. “The only thing that’s missing…IS YOUR ASS!!”
Dalton and Wesley fight, and it’s not much of a fight, because Dalton is carved from sensitive, philosophy-loving granite and Wesley is a doughy idiot. And just as Dalton is about to apply his signature throat-ripping move, he resists. He doesn’t want to be a killer anymore.
The rest of the town doesn’t feel the same way, though, and they all proceed to show up and shoot Wesley to death, because they are just sick and tired of him driving his monster truck over their property. Doc is able to overlook Dalton’s ability to murder people with his bare hands, and all is right in the world again.
At what point does a “bad” movie become good? If a movie fails to be intelligent or well made, and succumbs to dopiness at every turn, and yet is endlessly entertaining and enjoyable and charming, is it really that “bad”? Maybe it’s all subjective. The fact is, Road House is so stupid it’s incredible. Every character on display is so ridiculous it boggles the mind. And it’s endlessly entertaining. The goofy, ridiculous charm this film holds is contagious. It crashes from scene to scene with a bumbling grace. It’s unique in its charms as well, because I honestly can’t think of another film quite like this one. Road House is not a “good” movie in the traditional sense. And you should watch it immediately.
The good folks at RedLeterMedia put together this wonderful video documenting every single face-punch in the film, so look upon it with the awe it deserves: