Film reviews and more since 2009

Road House (1989) review

Dir. Rowdy Herrington

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★½

I’ll admit: I was kind of surprised to learn that Road House was among one of the most-watched movies on cable in 2020. In fact, both it and Jumanji aired on television more than The Shawshank Redemption and Goodfellas, which I swear are both always on some cable channel, regardless of daypart. From September 2019 to July 2020, Road House had played 83 times across 10 different networks.

What makes Road House so enduringly appealing more than 30 years after it was released to middling reviews and was only a modest box office success ($61 million against a $15 million budget)? I think it’s a flurry of elements. 1.) the impossibly handsome Patrick Swayze in the leading role. The film functions on two primal levels, appealing to men for its unabashedly graphic depiction of violence, and affording women the opportunity to see Swayze shirtless on more than a handful of occasions. 2.) the soundtrack, which boasts songs from The Jeff Healey Band, Bob Seger, Otis Redding, and Swayze himself. 3.) like Top Gun, the film has a little bit of everything: comedy, drama, romance, suspense, action, all while existing in its own goofy state of reality where the world and characters immersed in it verge on parody.

Road House revolves around Swayze’s James Dalton, who is regarded as the best bar bouncer in the business (that would make for a zinger of a business card). While barroom patrons might see him as a bruiser, he’s a quiet thinker at heart, harboring a Ph.D. in philosophy as well as the tormenting memory of having killed a man in brutal fashion. Dalton leaves his home-state of New York when he’s summoned to a small Missouri town where a local gin-mill known as the Double Deuce is being overrun by bikers, goons, and layabouts. Before there was Jon Taffer, there was James Dalton.

The bar’s owner (Kevin Tighe) simply wants the rabblerousing to stop so he can rebuild the name and expand the operation. This should be an isolated job, handled by Dalton, the bar’s owner, and staff, but the town of Jasper, Missouri is really run by Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), who rules with an iron fist. Dalton shacks up at a farmhouse where, across the river, unbeknownst to him, lives Wesley, who can now spy on the area’s latest drifter.

When the first night at Double Deuce turns violent, and eventually bloody, Dalton meets Doc (Kelly Lynch) at the hospital. She takes a liking to his soft-spoken ways. Later on, Wesley’s hatred of Dalton grows when he sees him making out with Doc across the river. Wesley once dreamed of getting together with Doc.

One of the slyest elements about Road House is how writers R. Lance Hill and Hilary Henkin retrofit the western movie template into a modernized setting of a bar in need of a facelift. Take note of all the characters’ names, for one: Dalton, Doc, Wesley, Webster (Red West), and Wade (Sam Elliott), a bouncer friend of Dalton’s our hero calls when he realizes Deuce will be a bigger job than he initially thought. All of these names feel plucked from westerns gone past. Throw in the dashing male lead, Gazzara playing a full-blown caricature, and Lynch as a damsel-y love interest, and you have yourself a motion picture as American as apple pie.

I see the appeal in Road House. For one, it’s a movie that doesn’t cop out when it’s time for fisticuffs. The fight choreography is slick, and results in more than a few characters getting beaten to a bloody pulp. Some even succumb to their wounds, albeit not before shouting some heinous lines (“I used to fuck guys like you in prison!”). It’s a movie so outlandish that you have to accept it on its own terms, which I did. Then I grew fatigued by its archetypal characters. After that, I was entertained by a monster truck crashing through a Ford dealer followed by the climax at Wesley’s house, inside of which had more animals taxidermized than the number aboard Noah’s ark.

Maybe this is a good movie and I’m underrating it. The good news: I’ll have ample opportunities to rewatch it thanks to YouTube TV.

NOTE: As of this writing, Road House is available to stream on Max.

My review of Road House (2024)

Starring: Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara, Kevin Tighe, Red West, Jeff Healey, Sunshine Parker, and Marshall Teague. Directed by: Rowdy Herrington.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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