ROAD HOUSE (DVD)

4 Stars
Year Released: 1989
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 114 minutes
Click to Expand Credits:

MGM Home Entertainment has finally released this bona-fide American classic on DVD and thus it is preserved digitally for the epoch, cementing its status as one of cinema’s hallmark productions. Remember, if you can, an era where bouncers were not properly recognized by Hollywood, subjugated to roles requiring nothing more than standing mute and glowering, or at the most bending to unclip a theater rope for the real stars of the film. We take it for granted these days that now these chunk-muscles have speaking parts, such as haggling with line-standers over the guest list, or sometimes addressing the star as they open the door to the limo. Even the roles for bodyguards have taken on added significance, with their bosses now often turning to them for advice before they dispatch a problematic character. None of this was possible before “Road House” opened those doors. Or make that kicked them down.
This is a feature with limitless joys to behold. The non-stop brawling is directed by a man named Rowdy, as in Harrington. MGM had the vision to turn over the reigns of this production to one of their gaffers, a once proud bouncer himself. Rowdy was tabbed to peel back the veil of the gauzy world of “coolers”, the trade name for those brave beefcakes charged with enforcing decorum in the most unruly honkytonks, cock-fighting arenas, and Rob Schneider movie premieres. The best way for them to keep the peace is by exacting swift and furious violence—and if that makes sense, you are welcome to come in.
Among the other pleasures we also get treated to a town being terrorized by a sawed-off megalomaniac, frontier justice delivered via monster-truck, a character named “Red” played by an actor named Red, and more fights than a hockey game played before an English soccer crowd on 2-for-1 ale night. These bouncers are elevated in status as knights of integrity, and guiding us along on this tour of the sawdust Camelot is hunkthrob Patrick Swayze. At the time they began shooting, Swayze had America in the palm of his rippling hand after “Dirty Dancing” enthralled a nation with his mixture of testosterone fueled passion and blithe footwork on the dance floor. And when, as Johnny Castle, he strode defiantly into the banquet hall of the Catskills resort and brazenly approached the doctor’s table to proclaim, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner!”—well Pat, by then I would have followed you into battle.
And in “Road House” we nearly do. This film concerns the life of a man with a black belt in Karate and a P.H.D. in philosophy who is an itinerant bouncer for hire. This should serve as an object lesson for all you college freshman—while majoring in French poetry or the dead languages may sound enticing, apply some forward thinking career wise. Like other great thinkers—Gandhi, Nietzsche, Screech—he goes by the lone name of Dalton, and we get introduced to him as he is called out to clean things up in a rough-and-tumble tavern in the small town of Jasper, Kansas. He arrives to great fanfare among the bar’s staff, as he is “legendary” in their line of work. I take this to mean that there are bouncer/doormen trade magazines keeping them up to date on crowd control technologies and significant events.
Kevin Tighe, of “Emergency!” fame, plays the dyspeptic looking saloon owner Tilghman who has seen his margins go razor thin as a result of employee graft, high stakes extortion, and having to buy new bar furniture after every shift. Dalton is brought in and he streamlines the staff, purging the drug users and barkeeps skimming the till, while teaching the Zen of fracturing nose cartilage. They also manage to corral the out of control clientele into behaving less like stampeding bison and immediately Tilghman sees his profits return. This inspires him to put pot stickers on the menu and to regain his nerve of standing up to the one man who has Jasper in his hip pocket.
Ben Gazzara plays the overlord with the unimposing name of Wesley, who develops his vast wealth by shaking down the few struggling business owners of this backwoods town. As played by Gazzara, he is essentially Boss Hog elevated to Bond villain levels while operating in flyover country. He has at his disposal a crew of sycophantic brain donors who eagerly follow out his orders, like those henchmen from the Batman television show that wore their names on their sweatshirts. Wesley and Dalton are on a collision course for numerous reasons. First Dalton fired one of his inbred family members from Tilghman’s bar, then Wesley sends out a phalanx of bruisers to collect his fee and they are chased off by Dalton’s team. The last piece of this professional wrestling-worthy story line involves a woman.
After getting knifed, Dalton heads to ER to get stitched up and encounters a doctor who is nearly as pretty as he is. Her name is Doc, played by Kelly Lynch, and she is drawn to him when she discovers he is the only man in town without a collection of “Ernest Goes to…” movies. That Doc is gorgeous and intelligent and yet cannot find her way out of this bog is just the first example of the misogyny on display here. The women are given less regard than the trucks and smell hounds, and even though Lynch has the smartest and strongest role, she is still treated the same way a mastiff treats a T-bone. The two beauties are soon testing the limits of Dalton’s sutures with their sexual gymnastics, and this causes Wesley to ramp up his oppression, as he and Doc have something of a past.
The film takes a blissful turn when Dalton has to call in his bar-fighting mentor, Wade Garrett, to help control the situation. Sam Elliot plays the disheveled, unsanitary, middle-aged brawler whose lips barely open to allow his drawl to seep out like year-old motor oil. He acts as Dalton’s guru, schooling him in all aspects of life, save hygiene, while delivering wisdom such as, “I’ll get all the sleep I need when I’m dead”. In all of Elliot’s screen time he appears as if he needs to be run through the chemical showers at the viral wing of the Center for Disease Control. Wade’s appearance brings out a troubled event in Dalton’s past and later he confesses to Doc that his somber psychology came about because he once killed a man in self-defense. While less than thrilled, Doc sticks by her man given the lack of other choices in town, but this should have sent up warning flags to Dalton. You tell a woman how you have murdered in the past and she is unfazed…makes one wonder what’s lurking in her closets.
This confession changes Dalton’s outlook and he is now willing to scrag Wesley’s hoods with aplomb, culminating in a showdown at Wesley’s home. While prowling through the mansion, we see just how evil Wesley is by the volume of animal pelts and trophies he has decorating the place. (He must have done his shooting at an animal theme park based on the fact that we see the head of an orangutan mounted on the wall.) Soon enough, order is restored, along with our faith in mankind.
The only regrettable part of this new release is the lack of any true extras on the DVD–imagine how much more we could have gleaned on the inside world of coolers with behind the scenes interviews with Harrington. Also, it would have been nice to hear from co-script writer Hillary Henkin so she could explain what depraved treatment of women she was responsible for scripting. But just to see this film in high resolution is enough to satisfy. The digital image transfer sharpens those blurred scenes of pool cues being used as bludgeoning batons, and although they only provided the audio in 2.0 format, it was pleasing to hear dialogue such as, “That gal’s got entirely too many brains to have an ass like that” in crystalline clarity.



Posted on February 7, 2003 in Reviews by
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