Monday, February 3, 2014

Review: Road House

Ah, Road House. I'd avoided experiencing this bleak bit of cinema history until recently, more or less on purpose. As is so often the case, the factor that made me finally get around to it was its impending departure from Netflix Instant. (It's gone now, so don't bother looking for it. There's a reason I waited to post this review.) The only reason I didn't just let it expire was because people talk about this movie a lot, and the strange things I'd heard…well, I just sort of wanted to understand.

My goal in this review is, as much as possible, to make you understand so you don't have to see it. Because whatever else can be said of this movie, it has a certain uniqueness, and unfortunately that can be attractive sometimes.

Be assured that Road House is in fact repellent from start to finish.

The plot is that a supernaturally talented and vaguely Zen-ish bar bouncer (Patrick Swayze, in his first major role after his breakout hit Dirty Dancing) goes to work at a suspiciously well-lit dive bar in the middle of nowhere—the sort of place where there's "blood on the floor every night," as musical guest Jeff Healey explains. The protagonist—named Dalton, and oh dear god, is that why so many twentysomethings these days are named Dalton? did their parents name them after the Road House guy?!—draws immediate attention to himself, because I guess dive-bar people all hang out in the same chat room or something, so no matter what time zone they live in they've all heard that he once ripped a guy's throat out. Anyway, in attempting to clean up the joint, our heroic stoic gets involved with a series of locals—some friendly, some not—and, in keeping with the principle of Chekhov's throat-ripping, well, there's a throat-ripping.

I should go no further without emphasizing that this movie seems to have been made largely as a delivery mechanism for fight scenes. And if bar brawls are your thing—like really your thing, like you've always wanted to actually be in one—then this is a movie for you. But those of us who don't suffer from bizarre testosterone-related medical conditions will find this movie profoundly silly or offensive—maybe both.

I think the thing that offends me most is its very specific tone. There are plenty of movies that concern themselves with grungy bars full of hairy, sweaty, violent, homosexual-urge-repressing guys. But this one has two notable distinctions among its brethren:

1. We are supposed to not just like, not just respect, but damn nearly revere the protagonist. More on this later.

2. It's got a budget so high as to be embarrassing.

Thank Joel Silver for that second one. Those who have not seen Road House can approach true understanding by imagining a relentlessly misogynistic bar-brawl movie with the slickness and polish of a Back to the Future movie. I mean, this is the kind of movie that has characters unironically driving a monster truck. And they use it when they're shadowing people. This is a movie where the hero wears his karate uniform with jeans over it when he's just out running errands. Remember, this was a major motion picture when it came out. These are just glimpses at the multiple layers of offensiveness. I haven't even mentioned the inexplicable stripping scene, or the character whose sole narrative purpose is to follow Dalton home and see his butt.

I remember developing a distaste for Patrick Swayze long before seeing him act in anything, mainly due to the maddening ubiquity of Dirty Dancing in the late '80s. His role here seems carefully yet wrongheadedly constructed to reinforce his sex symbol persona—I can't imagine being an '80s woman and getting through the hospital scene with anything but repulsion—and his performance does little to counteract that distaste. In every bar scene, he wears a constant look of "I am so much better than all these people."

Perhaps, therefore, he was doomed to run afoul of the other guy in town who obviously thinks that: the mean ol' land developer, Wesley (Ben Gazzara, who may have landed the similar role of Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski due to Road House). Dalton and Wesley cross (metaphorical (penis stand-in)) swords frequently throughout the movie, in what was probably supposed to feel like a slow build to the idiotic trophy-room climax.

When Road House came out, its level of violence was still a little bit shocking. But mostly there's nothing too intense here, especially by modern standards—knees get attacked a lot, mainly. There is a bit of gore, though, most notably in the famous throat-ripping scene—which is included for the exact same reason that Miami Connection had the katana-butchery scene: because overgrown man-children would insist on putting something like that in their action movie. (The Rambos start to look subtle by comparison.)

Yet, while Miami Connection is endearing and invites multiple viewings, I have no interest in ever seeing Road House again. Both films are utterly sincere, but the latter is…just ickier in every way. If it were a single still photo, rather than a movie, it would only be found on the interior walls of garages.

I give Road House some credit for reasonably well-choreographed fight scenes and for having the good sense to give Sam Elliott a role (which nevertheless dooms his character to obvious death as soon as you figure out that he's Dalton's mentor). Otherwise: ugh. It might be a fun one to watch in a room full of snark-minded gay men, but definitely don't just sit down and dutifully watch it out of some sense of cinephile completionism, as I did.

One last thing. Tonally, this movie's very '80s, but it's a special, hateful kind of '80s. It should be required viewing for anyone of Generation Y or younger who's ever caught saying, "I wish I'd experienced the '80s." Road House reminds us that it wasn't all Capri Suns and Duck Tales and Flocks of Seagulls; the '80s had their own Cro-Magnon quality too, embodied by this movie perhaps more densely than any other (save for, arguably, Top Gun). I have to believe that, in at least one of the parallel universes where Reagan was never elected, there was also never a Road House.

Star Score: 1 out of 5

And now, the palate-cleanser. You knew it was coming.

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