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So Bad It’s Good: Bouncers, Mullets, and Tai Chi Collide in ‘Road House’

Bad movies are not a simple matter. There are nearly as many categories of terrible movies as there are for great ones: there are films that are insultingly stupid (Batman & Robin), unintentionally funny (The Room), unintentionally, painfully unfunny (White Chicks), so bad they’re depressing (Transformers), and so on. But the most rewarding terrible movies are those we know as “so bad they’re good” — entertaining in their sheer incompetence, best braved in numbers, where the ham-fisted dramatics and tin-eared dialogue become fodder for years of random quotes and inside jokes. And in this spirit, Flavorwire brings you the latest installment in our (long-dormant, but newly reinstated) monthly So Bad It’s Good feature: Road House, the oiled-up, mullet-sporting, lunk-headed Citizen Kane of bouncer epics.

Seldom does a film establishes its aesthetic concerns as early as Road House, whose title appears across a random woman’s mini-skirted posterior. She’s on her way to a happening local hotspot (apparently located in a mall — the ‘80s were a strange time, you guys), where crunchy-banged babes and skinny-tied fellas have a good, clean time under the watchful eye of Dalton (Patrick Swayze). And I do mean “the watchful eye”; it feels like a good quarter of the film’s flabby 114 minutes is spent on shots of Swayze turning and/or looking at things.

Dalton, we’re told, is “the best damn cooler in the business,” but the term apparently has a different definition in redneck bars than it does in casinos; in this world, the cooler basically coaches the bouncing staff, orchestrating their moves while dispensing bits of fortune-cookie wisdom like, “Nobody ever wins a fight.” Anyway, on this particular evening, Dalton’s being eyeballed by Tilghman (the great, smarmy character actor Kevin Tighe), who finds him in a back room doing a bit of post-brawl self-surgery — Dalton, like most action heroes of the decade, is a graduate of the Rambo School of Personal Medicine — and asks Dalton to come work for him at his bar in Jasper, Missouri.

That bar, the Double Deuce, is comically rough — during the first scene there, another Swayze-turns-and-looks-at-things special, I half expected director Rowdy Herrington (yes, that’s the director’s name) to insert the brawling Girl Scouts from Airplane! The bad behavior among the staff isn’t much better than it is among the patrons; Dalton finds one of the bouncers screwing a young lady in a back room, making her the immortal promise, “You’re gonna be my regular Saturday night thing.” Dalton fires him on the spot (“But I’m on muh break!” the gentlemen objects, not unreasonably), as well as a bartender who is stealing booze and skimming from the till, which leads to the real trouble.

You see, said bartender is the nephew of Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara, a loooooong way from those Cassavetes movies), the most powerful man in Jasper, who shakes down all the local businesses (all three of them, from what we see of the town) and lives on a rambling estate, manned by goons and sycophants and a monster truck. His property is conveniently located directly across the lake from the farmhouse Dalton is renting (apparently from Dukes of Hazard’s Uncle Jesse). Later in the film, this proximity leads to one of the movie’s most unintentionally funny lines, as two of Wesley’s thugs ride up to Dalton’s place and growl, “We’ve been lookin’ all over for you.” Um, he was across the lake, dudes.

Anyway, a couple of his other men turn up at the Double Deuce to demand the sticky-fingered bartender gets his job back, and, surprise, a brawl ensues. The fights are already getting monotonous by this early point (for a movie with this much punching, kicking, and fucking, Road House sure does drag), and a grazing from a knife ruins one of Dalton’s best blouses and sends him to see the town’s French-braided lady doctor (Kelly Lynch), who he sensibly calls “Doc,” and who quickly becomes his romantic interest.

And I do mean quickly. A word about this doctor, as pointed out by “How Did This Get Made” co-host Jason Mantzoukas: here we have a medical professional, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, who has unprotected first-date sex with a drifter who floats from one redneck bar to the other. Good god, this man’s penis must be like a Petri dish, but no matter, they have deeply un-erotic sex up against a stone wall (ouch) and on Dalton’s tin roof (ugh), in full view of Rich Man Wesley, who, of course, used to have a thing for her, giving him one more reason to wish Dalton dead.

What’s particularly odd about the second half of the movie, which is basically Wesley going up against Dalton, is that he never just goes across the goddamn lake and takes him out. He blows up Dalton’s buddy’s auto part store, he blows up the home of Dalton’s landlord/Uncle Jesse clone, and he has his goons turn up at the Double Deuce pretty much every night, culminating in a visit by Wesley himself, who sends his trophy girlfriend up on stage to strip. (It was around this point that I began to question Road House’s attitudes towards women.)

Such questions of logic have no place in a movie like Road House, but here are a couple more: How is it that nobody in this Missouri town so much as waves a gun until the third act? How lucrative could the Double Deuce possibly be, if Tilghman can afford a house band, something like 20 bouncers, and Dalton himself, at a cost of $5K flat and $500/night? And most importantly, why does Dalton leave his badly battered best friend (Sam Elliott, at his Sam Elliott-est), direly in need of medical attention, alone at the Double Deuce, when he is at that very moment going to the hospital to warn his reckless lady-doctor girlfriend? (Elliott gets killed while he’s gone, setting up the inevitable climactic revenge beat, but Jesus, Dalton’s as much to blame as the killer.)

I’d imagine the best answer to such question is this: cocaine, lots and lots of cocaine. The Peruvian marching powder is all but dusting the corners of the frame throughout Road House, which may as well go into a museum for ‘80s artifacts. (The above scene, of a monster truck taking apart a car dealership, may be the single most ’80s thing to ever happen in a movie.) All the markers are there: the over-the-top score, the overwrought sound effects, the feathered hair, and the endless homoerotic subtext. Don’t believe me? Here are a few lines of out-of-context dialogue:

  • “I thought you’d be bigger.”
  • “I’ve always wanted to try you. I think I can take you.”
  • “What’s the matter, you chicken-dick? You wanna kiss and make up?”
  • “I sure ain’t gonna show you muh dick.”
  • “Your ass is mine, boy.”
  • “I heard you had balls big enough to come in a dump truck.”
  • And, of course: “I used to fuck guys like you in prison.”

That last Wildean bon mot comes during the climax, just before Dalton enters Wesley’s house (where an out-of-control set decorator makes him look less like a trophy-collecting hunter than the owner of a taxidermy museum) and kills all of his guys, including the nephew — whose firing from a shitty bartending gig was, remember, the instigating event for a small-town bloodbath that left dozens dead and several buildings destroyed. Hey, maybe the old man coulda just found the guy another gig?

But there I go, applying common sense to Road House again. And to be fair, it might be too reductive to call it an ‘80s artifact; even in the ‘80s, none of this made any sense, so maybe we should deal with Road House (which celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer) not as a goofy action movie, but as something akin to science fiction, set in a world without even a passing resemblance to our own, governed by an alien logic. Upon its release, Roger Ebert wrote, “I hesitate to recommend it, because so much depends on the ironic vision of the viewer. This is not a good movie. But viewed in the right frame of mind, it is not a boring one, either… Road House exists right on the edge between the ‘good-bad movie’ and the merely bad.” Not to contradict the master, but I think it’s pretty clear which side of the edge Road House falls on.

Road House is streaming on Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu. Special thanks to fellow bad-movie watchers Mac Welch, Amy Hughey, and Meridith Jones.

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