‘I thought you’d be bigger’ are five words frequently repeated throughout Rowdy Herrington’s cult action movie Road House, but its star, to which the sentence was directed, could not be any bigger at the time of the film’s release. Patrick Swayze was one of Hollywood’s hottest properties at the time, mostly thanks to his turn as the rebellious dance instructor Johnny Castle in teen-romance sleeper Dirty Dancing. A very different film, targeted at a very different audience with recurrent violence, frequent nudity and common expletives, Road House was very much going after the adult male, and succeeded with more than $30 million in the bank during its U.S. theatrical run – all from an estimated budget of $10-15 million.
“Pain don’t hurt.”
Road House rolled into production in the spring of 1988. By that point, Dirty Dancing had made well over $200 million around the world and was just about the find a new audience on VHS – both rental and eventually retail – where many more zeros would be added to that massive gross.
“Road House gave me the opportunity to hone an old skill I never realized I missed,” said Swayze in his autobiography ‘The Time Of My Life,’ referring to the rhythm skills from his dancing background he employed while training in the sport of kickboxing for the role of Dalton.
Dalton is the all-American hero, ‘a stand-up guy with a strong code’ asked to come to the small Kansas City town of Jasper to clean up a run-down club after the owner Tilghman (Kevin Tighe) comes into a bit of money. Dalton is one of the best bouncers in the business, recruited for the sum of $500 a night to head up the security team at the ‘Double Deuce’, a spit and sawdust joint known more for its bar room brawls more than its bands and booze. With money no object, and Tulghman taking care of the décor and look of the place, Dalton slowly starts to boot out the bad eggs and assemble a team worthy of taking on the constant stream of trouble makers that come through the Deuce’s doors each night.
Amongst the supporting cast are the likes of the brilliant Sam Elliott, Kelly Lynch and the late Ben Gazzara as local businessman Brad Westley, the villain of the piece who has more than a tight, vice-like grip on Jasper; taxing the locals, controlling the booze at the Double Deuce and proving to be an all-round menace. The arrival of Dalton doesn’t please him either, Wesley taunting the bouncer after inviting him to a seemingly innocent meet, and then poking him by mentioning an incident from the past in Memphis where Dalton reportedly killed a man with his bare hands.
It’s all classic western stuff, Dalton the new gun in town and Wesley the crooked ‘sheriff’, one who refuses to loosen his stranglehold over the helpless locals. Elliott plays the legendary Wade Garrett, a bouncer with the reputation of being the best of the best, and an obvious mentor and friend to the younger Dalton. Though Garrett was painted as being the older man – he repeatedly calls Dalton ‘mijo’ (Spanish for son) in the film, though just eight years separated Elliott and Swayze.
Lynch plays Dalton’s love interest, local doctor Elizabeth ‘Doc’ Clay, who he meets one night after being caught by the sharp end of a dagger held by one of the Deuce’s disgruntled ex-employees. One of the film’s most talked about moments is the love scene at the heart of the film. Set to the tones of Otis Redding’s ‘These Arms Of Mine,’ – a track also used prior to one of the more intimate scenes in Dirty Dancing – Dalton and Doc finally seal their romance in Dalton’s rather open farm loft room, wind blowing in from the open fields outside and Westley creepily looking on from a rocking chair in his porch in front of his sweeping house opposite. It’s a scene where Bill Murray reportedly calls filmmaker and husband to Kelly Lynch, Mitch Glazer (writer, Scrooged, Rock The Kasbah, A Very Murray Christmas), to tease him about it each and every time he sees it on TV.
The other characters include Red Webster (Red West – a close friend of Elvis Presley and part of his inner circle, the so-called “Memphis Mafia,”), a hardware story owner who has also suffered at the hands of Westley, and an attack slotted in towards the end of the film sees his shop, located directly opposite the Double Deuce, burn to the ground.
Then there’s the late Canadian musician Jeff Healey in the role of Cody, frontman and lead guitarist of the Deuce’s frequently teased house band. Healey and his fellow musicians (The Jeff Healey Band) provide much of the music in the film, with originals and covers, including one of The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues.
5 Things you didn’t know about Road House
- You may recognise the band playing in the club at the very start of the movie. They are the Cruzados, led by Tito Larriva, who would later go on to form Tito & Tarantula – the band that played at the Titty Twister in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn.
- Amongst the cast is Keith David who plays the role of barman Ernie Bass. David would later go on to appear in films like There’s Something About Mary, Armageddon and Requiem For A Dream. Prior to Road House, amongst other roles, he played Childs in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
- According to the film’s IMDB page, Swayze’s fame was so big at the time that he had to have bodyguards during filming because fans would mob him.
- Dalton’s first name is never mentioned in the film, though the Christian name ‘James’ is visible on his hospital records – seen in the scene where he first meets Doc in the hospital.
- Various reports online say that, in the past, the NYPD have use a scene from the film as part of their mandatory training – the ‘be nice’ dialogue at the Double Deuce, delivered by Swayze as Dalton towards the start of the movie.
Road House was met with less than favourable reviews at the time of release – some called it ‘pointless, mean-spirited, and excessively violent’ – and it is very easy to agree with some of them.
However, I believe the late, great Roger Ebert knocked the nail on the head with his original review. He said that the film exists ‘right on the edge between the “good-bad movie” and the merely bad. I hesitate to recommend [Road House], because so much depends on the ironic vision of the viewer.’ He is 100% correct. Every time that the film plays on TV, or I see it pop up on a recommended list on one of the streamers, I must watch it. I believe that there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure, but if I had to list my favourite action movies of the ‘80s, amongst the Schwarzenegger and Stallone classics would be Road House. It’s the definition of perfect Friday night, post-pub fodder, the type of movie an entire DTV genre exists today on your supermarket shelves. It is a film made during Swayze’s golden five-year period – one which began with Dirty Dancing, continued through to the romantic heartbreaker, Ghost, and culminated with his career-best turn as Bodhi in Katherine Bigalow’s timeless 1991 action movie Point Break. More than anything else, it’s an absolute blast from start to finish.
Happy 30th, Road House.