Once upon a time.. In 1989
Road House is both the quintessential camp 80s movie, and a dramatic, emotional and timeless classic. In this epic article for PF Synth, synthwave artist, Sunglasses Kid, takes us blow-by-blow through the plot of one his favourite 80s movies.
The dancing’s over, now it gets dirty – reads the tag-line on the movie poster for Road House. It hit cinemas in 1989, just two years after the Swayze craze blew up with Dirty Dancing. Hot off the heels of his newly found super-fame, Swayze decided the next best move to capitalise on his teen idol status, would be to star in the 18 rated bad-ass, throat-ripping, skirt-stripping, monster truck-smashing, barn-exploding B-movie.
Road House plays like a classic Western. It was only the second movie for director Rowdy Herrington, who approached it like a cowboy film, citing Tombstone as an influence. Even the character’s names (Dalton, Garret, Emmet, Doc, Wesley and Tilghman) are real-life Wild West outlaws and lawmen.
This is a traditional tale of the hero and the village. It’s every Eastwood movie. It’s Leone for the 80s. And that’s why, from the moment this iconic story begins, it instantly has the feel of a classic.
There’s a new sheriff in town
In a cool busy bar, we find Dalton (Patrick Swayze) – a calm, collected, zen-like bouncer. A fight breaks out and Dalton gets stabbed in the arm but walks away, because he’s just so goddamned hard.
Whilst Dalton is stitching himself up, a wealthy stranger, called Tilghman, shows up and pitches Dalton big plans for his failing bar, the Double Deuce – a joint with blood on the dance floor every night of the week. He wants to clean it up, but first he needs to clean it out. He needs the best ‘cooler’ in the business. He needs Dalton.
Quitting and hitting
So, giving zero fucks about his current job, Dalton quits and splits for Jasper, Missouri in his slick silver Mercedes. On his arrival, Dalton goes mystery shopping at the Double Deuce where his reputation precedes him. It seems like every other person is unimpressed by his size, or jizzing in their pants at the mere mention of his name. Either way, they all want to see what this beautiful lion-maned mulleted man is capable of – as legend has it, he once ripped a guy’s throat out in Memphis.
The Double Deuce lives up to its name of being a bad bar, with all kinds of crazy 80s shit happening – from drunk bad chat up lines, “hey vodka rocks, what about you and I get nipple to nipple?”, to people punching each other out over pool tables, to wrestler Terry Funk losing his shit every few minutes with the clientele, throwing drunk guys into tables and throwing insults at Dalton about having “balls big enough to cum in a dump truck”.
Dalton cooly surveys the chaos, ignoring a blonde babe’s advances, and we share another moment of monk-like restraint from him as a mass brawl explodes to the soundtrack of the Deuce’s house band. The slapstick fight nearly destroys the place as blind blues singer, Jeff Healey, shreds licks inside the safety of a metal cage.
Fifteen minutes and two fights in, the anticipation is mounting as our protagonist has been stabbed and dodged bottles to the face, but hasn’t thrown a single punch.
After the brawl, Dalton trades up his Mercedes for a busted Buick he loads up with spare tyres, foreshadowing the trouble he expects to come his way.
Time to not be nice
Dalton rents a sweet-ass converted barn from a simple old farmer named Emmett. Here we’re introduced to the douchey local corrupt businessman Wesley (Ben Gazzara) who does a Top Gun fly-by on the barn in his helicopter, scaring the horses. Gazzara is brilliant here, with a single smile showing us how he simply gets pleasure from fucking with people.
With his first night on the job, Dalton (who’s smoking because it’s the 80s), fires a few bad apples and gives his iconic and endlessly quotable pep-talk to the bouncers on the three things you need to do to clean up a bad bar; 1) never underestimate your opponent 2) Take it outside and 3) be nice. “Be nice until it’s time to not be nice”.
With the pep-talk over, the bouncers get their first test when a fight inevitably breaks out, and finally we get to see Dalton dishing out a lightning fast ass-kicking, calmly smashing a guy’s face into a table and impressing all the local hot 80s ladies.
That night, Dalton also catches one of the bouncers having sex in the store cupboard (mandatory excuse to show 80s boobs) and fires him. Dalton also asks bartender, Pat, to take the train, when he catches him skimming the till.
With the locals less than happy that there’s a new sheriff in town, Dalton gets bricks in his Buick and a knife in his spare tyre.
That night, wealthy Wesley throws a coke-fuelled pool party for his endless supply of henchman and bikini babes (more excuses to show 80s side-boob) as Dalton watches from his barn, unimpressed.
The next day, in a gratuitous Swayze butt-in-a-movie moment, Dalton is visited by an over-eager waitress from the Deuce who’s brought him a hangover coffee. She tells him that skimming bartender, Pat, is Wesley’s nephew, and she’s “looking at a dead man”.
Dalton settles in, makes friends with the locals and finally meets Wesley face to face. And that’s when Dalton realises Wesley is going to be his problem.
That same night, skimming Pat returns with the local goons to get his job back or else the liquor Wesley supplies will stop coming. Cue amazing fight where Pat pulls a knife on Dalton and calls him a ‘chicken dick’ before being kicked through a window by an industry standard 80s roundhouse. Dalton and the bouncers easily dispense with the rest of the goon-squad.
Pain don’t hurt
After being slashed in the ribs, Dalton has to visit ‘the doc’ – blonde beauty Kelly Lynch, hot off the set of 1988’s Cocktail. Lynch is instantly drawn to Dalton, who insists on not taking painkillers whilst she staples him together. She’s also impressed by him having a degree in philosophy from NYU and his interest in “man’s quest for meaning”.
Wesley is humiliated by how easily Dalton dispatches with his men. He’s jealous of the Double Deuce’s success, and pissed that his young blonde girlfriend has the hots for Dalton and his ripped abs – which Dalton rubs in Wesley’s face every morning by doing sexy topless tai-chi at the lake.
As the pressure builds, Dalton calls legendary bouncer Wade Garrett (Sam Elliot) – who’s working in a strip joint (more gratuitous 80s boob) and asks him about Wesley.
From this point onwards, shit escalates quickly with Wesley sending more henchman with glistening 80s FX knife-boots to mess with the Deuce. Dalton and the bouncers make light work of them outside, just in time for the doc to see Dalton’s bad-ass moves.
Like all women in the 80s, the doc is totally turned on by Dalton’s mysterious passion for reading poetry, practising tai-chi and kicking people in the face.
Fight for love
Dalton gets in the doc’s sweet red convertible four-wheeler and drives into the night – not before Wesley’s goons spot them together, hinting that the doc has history with Wesley.
Dalton and the doc have 80s sex in the barn to ‘These Arms of Mine’ (they were always fucking to classic motown in the 80s) and roll around on the roof (gratuitous 80s Kelly Lynch butt shot) in plain sight of Wesley, who’s clearly pissed. We know he’s angry because he sits on his porch and rocks in his rocking chair being all moody. The doc tells Dalton he could stay in Jasper, but Dalton’s all like, no I’m too hard and busy running away from my demons.
The following morning, Wesley’s goons start smashing up the liquor supply and bottle Dalton. Luckily, Garrett (Sam Elliot) turns up, sweeps his hair into a beautiful silver ponytail and kicks Wesley’s goons in the knee and punches one in the dick, saving Dalton from a total ass-kicking.
With Garrett in the mix, much bromance ensues. In a diner scene, Garrett has a heart to heart with Dalton, telling him to snap out of it. We learn that the rumours of Dalton killing a man in Memphis are true. It was over a woman and it was self-defense, but Dalton’s still living with the guilt of that day. This scene is beautifully under-pinned by Michael Kamen’s gorgeous soundtrack which provides this moment with a disarmingly dramatic and emotional tone.
That escalated quickly – (spoilers ahead)
With Wesley repeatedly having the asses of his henchman handed to him by Dalton and Garret, he decides to up-the-ante by burning down the doc’s uncle Red’s convenience store, teaching Dalton and the yokels a lesson about who’s the biggest swinging dick in the village.
As the store burns, Wesleys’ pool-cue wielding psycho henchman and back-up goons smash up the Double Deuce, whilst Wesley’s blonde girlfriend does a strip tease (more blatant 80s boobs). Needless to say, Dalton and Garret are kicking serious ass until Wesley fires a tiny little pistol into the air (definitely a metaphor for his tiny penis) and rage-quits with his goons.
Obviously Wesley’s not done, and the next day, has one of his boys drive a monster truck through a local’s car store, sending a warning to anyone tempted to side with Dalton.
After watching the locals have their livelihoods destroyed, Dalton is so pissed, he has to kick the shit out of a punching bag in his Rocky IV training barn, whilst Garrett gives him a mentor talk in another surprisingly emotional scene.
That night, Dalton tells the doc how he hates guys like Wesley. The doc begs him to dial it down. Dalton plans to take down Wesley, and just as the tense argument comes to a head, old man Emmet’s barn lights up in the second explosion of the week.
Dalton does a trade-mark ballet jump out the window and saves Emmet before chasing down the pool-cue toting bad guy who flees the scene on a dirt bike. With yet another Swayze ballet jump, Dalton gets him to the ground and they square off for topless kickboxing.
Both actors were trained by legendary kickboxer Benny Urquidez, and during the shoot, made full contact with each other – including Swayze accidentally being hit with a real piece of tree. The fight is so realistic, it’s a distinct possibility Swayze actually did rip the actor’s throat out for real.
Things take a turn for the dark, with Dalton visibly shocked at the blood on his hands and the doc screams in horror at how much of a psycho Dalton is. Dalton then yells, “Wesley! Fuuuuuuck you!” before pushing the lifeless pool-cue toting bad guy’s body into the lake, letting it float toward Wesley’s douchey mansion.
The next day, Dalton is ready to get the fuck out of Dodge, but instead gets a call from Wesley who’s flipping a coin over who dies – Garret or the doc. Heads or Tails.
In some classic misdirection, Dalton goes to save the doc, who’s totally fine. Dalton realises his mistake and rushes back to the Deuce to find Garrett with a “Tails” sign pinned to his chest with a knife.
In revenge for Garret’s death, Dalton sneaks over to Wesley’s mansion, and in a scene reminiscent of Hard To Kill, unleashes his bashed up Buick into a hail of henchman’s bullets before stealthily taking them out one by one.
At this point, Dalton’s moral code is well out the window, with him stabbing the guy who killed Garrett, saying “Tails again” (best one-liner ever), and nearly crushing another goon with a giant stuffed polar bear in Wesley’s trophy room.
A final showdown between Wesley and Dalton, in the lovely room of death, reaches its climax when Dalton has Wesley beat and must decide if he’s going to rip a second guy’s throat out that week.
Dalton grants Wesley mercy. But in a classic bad-guy-goes-for-his-gun-when-good-guy-has-his-back-turned moment, Dalton is saved by the locals, who magically appear with shot guns and brutally blast Wesley into his coffee table – not before Double Deuce owner Tilghman says “This is our town and don’t you forget it.” Not as good as “It’s just been revoked” but it’s right up there for 80s one-liners.
Cops burst in and everyone says they saw nothing, including the fat goon who can only recall a polar bear falling on him. Everyone laughs at the polar bear line and they all walk away from Wesley’s still warm body – the police satisfied that there’s nothing more to see here. Well that’s that wrapped up.
Presumably after the henchman’s throat-ripped body is fished out the water by the cops, Dalton and the doc close out the movie having the time of their lives, skinny dipping in the lake, splashing and kissing to the music of the Jeff Healey band who play out the credits with lyrics about it being the end of the chase and how the night is falling from the sky. Fuck yeah.
Legends of the cool
Like the outlaws and lawmen of the Wild West, Road House is a legend from a bygone era. It ushered in the end of the 80s and was one of the last movies of its kind.
Road House perfectly blends humour, action and drama in a way that only a handful of films have managed to pull off (The Lost Boys being another great example of blending humour, slap-stick action, shocking violence and drama).
Whilst it’s tempting to write-off Road House as simply being a silly camp movie, there’s a level to the film that demands you take it seriously.
With legendary producer Joel Silver (Commando, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard) bringing together a pool of incredibly talented cinematographers, editors and camera operators, and with pitch-perfect casting, this movie looks and feels incredible.
The soundtrack, by Michael Kamen (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard), is epic. With more than a nod to Morricone’s music for Once Upon A Time in the West, Kamen uses horses clopping hooves, harmonicas and guitars to accent an epic full orchestral score. Kamen expertly brings cinematic tension to action scenes with his trademark pizzicato Die Hard violins, and adds deeper meaning to emotional moments with his Lethal Weapon, Clapton-esque ambient guitar cues.
He’s not coming back
And Swayze. Oh we miss you Swayze. Without a doubt, this movie could easily have sucked without the majestic Patrick Swayze bringing his unique blend of Bhodi-like ballet-infused butt kicking and Texan charm to the role. It’s almost impossible to imagine any other actor of his generation taking on this role without changing the tone dramatically.
Many of the stars of the movie, including Swayze, died in the mid-00s, leaving Road House as yet another tombstone in the graveyard of good movies. And every so often, we visit it to remember the great times we used to have, before action films lost their sense of humour.
Road House is an iconic 80s classic that any fan of the decade should have in their collection. And in an era of instant downloads and on-demand streaming, you have no excuse. So fire up Netflix tonight, crack open a cold one and join Dalton in his quest to save a town, rescue the girl and win the day. Oh and remember to be nice.