[31 July 2009]
If a Hollywood studio locked my 11-year-old self and his friends in a room and handed us $10 million to make our ultimate movie, we’d produce quite a compelling train wreck. We would include big trucks and muscle cars, ‘cause they make a lot of noise and we all loved Dukes of Hazzard. There would be fist fight after fist fight after fist fight, culminating in a take-no-prisoners, kung-fu collision.
Both men and women would walk around semi-clothed. Most of the action would take place in a bar ‘cause, well, that’s where all the cool adult stuff takes place. The hero would be superficially complex and bionically tough. The villain would not just be evil, but evil to such a degree that death would be the only appropriate punishment for his sins.
Nobody would actually produce something like that, right? Wrong. You obviously never visited the ‘80s, where, after an eight ball or two, no film was too high-concept.
In 1989, Die Hard producer Joel Silver, director Rowdy (no, that’s not a joke—dude’s name was really Rowdy) Herrington, and the Swayze (always pronounced as one syllable) teamed up to make every 11-year-old boy’s fantasy of the adult world. The film, Road House, stands testament to a time before ironic awareness trickled down to even the least-discerning pop consumer. Road House takes us back to a much simpler world- a world where you can measure a man’s virility by how well-groomed a mullet he sports and how much glistening man-oil he secretes while practicing tai-chi.
The Swayze’s Dalton is a cooler, an uber-bouncer hired by clubs who can’t prevent the pie fight scene from Blazing Saddles occurring every evening on their premises. But he’s not just a cooler. No, he’s also a graduate of NYU’s philosophy program who relaxes by reading Legends of the Fall with his shirt off.
The proprietor of Jasper, Missouri hellmouth the Double Duce takes Dalton on to clean up his club. How rough is the Double Duce? It’s the kind of place which provides unauthorized mammary exams. It’s the kind of place where patrons whip half-empty beer bottles at blind slide-guitarists working in a cage. For real.
After a misunderstanding during his first shift, Dalton finds himself at the local hospital, where he falls for the gorgeous physician.They inevitably make sweet, sweet love in an outtake from Dirty Dancing. While cleaning up the club, Dalton butts heads with local sadist Brad Wesley (played by Ben Gazzera, unaware John Cassavetes is not on set). Wesley runs the neighborhood chaos stand, and can order a Big Foot to drive through a Ford dealership, in front of the whole town, without drawing any attention from authorities. Oh, and by the way, Brad also pines for the gorgeous physician, despite the facts that he is old enough to be her father and hosts pool parties which would make Hugh Hefner blush.
Dalton, of course, eventually cleans up the town. Wesley lives long enough to catch bullets from the entire Jasper Chamber of Commerce. Blind slide-guitarists play, uncaged. Roll credits.
So why can’t men of my generation turn away from this film? Why not Out for Justice? Or Bloodsport? Or, shudder, Tango & Cash? What makes Road House different than any of the other over-testosteroned, homoerotic slices of screen sadism served to filmgoers throughout the ‘80s?
Two words. The Swayze (stop pronouncing it with two syllables!).
No single male movie star more ably balanced the ‘80s requirements of inflicting sociopathic levels of violence while never wrinkling one crease of their pretty-boy image. The Swayze’s film are more feature-length music videos than anything else. He is more aware of us watching him than we are of him. From the moment he leads the Greasers into the rumble scene in The Outsiders by doing the flip over the fence, the Swayze has us—lock, stock, and barrel. Like Roy Stalin in Better Off Dead, women want him and men want to be him.
The Swayze hit the the jackpot with Dirty Dancing, the female version of Road House. What ‘80s teen girl didn’t dream of being swept off her feet by Johnny Castle? The Swayze rode his Dirty Dancing buzz into the pop charts with the god-awful ‘She’s Like The Wind’. The man was a true cross-medium superstar. Steel Dawn and Tiger Warsaw followed. Never heard of them? Neither did anyone back then, either.
The Swayze needed a hit. He needed Road House.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else in the role of Dalton. Who else could pull off a Gandhi bad-ass who managed to buy a Beemer on bouncer money? Only a performer who could project as vast a blank canvas as the Swayze. There are moments in Road House when you want to check the man’s pulse. He only moves his eyes. The Swayze’s self-aware sleepwalk through this wild carnival of ‘80s clichés is the magic of the film.I believe that the Dalton Swayze aims for a higher path.
You think I’m full of it? Well, what about the three rules? If you don’t know them, ask most males in their 30s. They are:
1) Never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected.
2) Take it outside. Never start anything inside the bar unless it’s absolutely necessary.
3) Be nice.
That’s some deep stuff, right there. And you doubted he was a philosophy major? The Tao of Dalton is a road to enlightenment. One should always prepare themselves for the obstacles that lay ahead. One should always place their best foot forward. Things about to get out of hand? Best take it elsewhere. Finally, the most important rule: be nice. Turn the other cheek. And if these rules don’t work, if whatever you encounter is much bigger than you, simple: Look for help.
You may exhale.
Other important rules we can gain from this film:
1) Any place that needs to employ more than two bouncers is most likely not the place you want to stage an evening of intoxication.
2) If you own a car dealership, and the town megalomaniac shows up with a freakin’ Big Foot, call the police.
3) When you’re the Swayze and you’re alone with a woman, a radio will always, always play a steamy slice of ‘60s pop.
Road House has an even deeper meaning for me because I bounced for four years. You will never meet a more unlikely skullcracker than me- mostly because I never attempted to crack a skull. I followed the three rules. All bouncers know the three rules. And yes, not one night passed without me folding my arms and doing my Dalton in my black shirt. Yeah, I was in my mid-20s. So what? Dalton’s that cool.
For the last year or so, we have all become aware of the Swayze’s battle with pancreatic cancer. The tabloid media doesn’t miss one of his hospital entrances. The man in these photos is but a ghost of the physical specimen in Road House. For my generation, this is an incredibly sobering reminder of our shared mortality. One day he will die, as will we all. But before that, before the inundation of tributes and Academy Award silent moments, and we should take an opportunity to celebrate a performer who gave us the films I’ve mentioned, plus Next of Kin and Point Break. The Swayze’s best work translates perfectly into our 300-channel world. I consider them good friends.
Here’s to you, Swayze. You were always big enough. And we hope you remain that way for many more years.