The Film: 5/5
Writing a review of one of my favorite films is always a wonderful and challenging task for me. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I like to collect my thoughts, brew a fresh cup of delicious coffee, and savor the moment before committing my word vomit to the page and trying to arrange it into some form of coherence.
Having said that, Road House, which I’m quite positive will be included in next year’s selection of entries to be preserved by the National Film Registry. Don’t ask me to bet actual money on it though. Will you accept Bitcoin?
I’ve seen Road House a few times, and by a few I mean ∞?. Okay that might be a slight exaggeration, but I’m a huge fan of this film. It is amazing that it even exists in the first place. Every time I watch it I marvel at the realization that people joined together and made it. It has never struck me as a movie to be enjoyed in this universe. Road House is a movie-within-a-movie that took on a life of its own and escaped into our realm, where it wasn’t appreciated by critics and audiences of the late 1980’s. Philistines. They were all on cocaine anyway. Even their damn kids.
Fine and dandy, Amos ‘n’ Andy, because Road House was not really made to be viewed just on a theater screen. In fact, I simply cannot imagine anyone enjoying this movie in a theater that didn’t serve cheap beer and barbecue chicken at the concession stand. No ma’am, Road House was made to be watched on repeat, to be rewound to its best scenes (which is the entire flick to me) until the tape started futzing up, and to give Spike TV and American Movie Classics something to show countless times every holiday. Except Christmas. That shit needs to change.
Road House is pure perfection. Scoff at that proclamation if you will, but every single one of its 35mm frames is infused with the shit-eating-grin-inducing joy of unpretentious entertainment that lives up to no expectations but its own and delivers on each promise it made and a few we weren’t even aware was made to begin with. I could write a book about it. Maybe I will. It must wait however until I have completed my 1,000-page manifesto devoted to the subject of Star Crash’s superiority over Star Wars. Yeah you heard me.
A gentleman by the name of Rowdy Herrington directed Road House. That’s his real name. I kid you not. Thousands of years ago, a star appeared over Bethlehem and an angel came down from Heaven (via Branson, Missouri, of course) and decreed before no one in particular that one day a child would be born into this world and would be named Rowdy and his single solitary mission would be to make a film entitled Road House AND THAT FILM WOULD BE EVERYTHING WE LOVE ABOUT THE MAGIC OF CINEMA AND THEN SOME. Apologies for the all-caps in the last part of that overlong sentence. In retrospect it seems like overkill.
Rowdy Herrington directed the living Hell out of Road House. It is a Rowdy Herrington film, rather than just a film (or even a Michael Bay film). I love Martin Scorsese, but he could not have ever made Road House. No way, Art Vandelay. By now I would have discussed what this film is about, but I have no desire to break down the plot synopsis of Road House. It isn’t necessary at all. Imagine a remake of Shane directed by Russ Meyer and you’re pretty much there, but rather than have the Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur characters exchange loving glances to the soulful music of Victor Young, they engage in sweaty, butt naked sex.
The late Patrick Swayze, an actor with oodles of physical presence and dexterity we took royally for granted during his truncated life on this planet, plays Dalton, the best bouncer in the business. Hell, he’s the best in the universe. The Mysterians know this dude by reputation! He’s hired to work as the “cooler” at a low-rent bar called the Double Deuce, overseeing a staff of bouncers who are either too overwhelmed by violent and obnoxious drunks every night to effectively do their job or flat-out just don’t give a shit. The joint is located in a small Missouri town virtually ruled over by Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), a powerful local tycoon who believes the work he put into bringing JCPenney to the rural hamlet entitles him to shake down local small business owners for protection money and allow his private army of sneering goons decked out in cheap shirts unbuttoned to their navels to run amuck without fear of reprisal from the law enforcement.
One of those goons is the fearsome Jimmy (Marshall Teague), the shit-kicker from Hell who looks like Timothy Olyphant’s evil powerlifter twin brother. He’s also an accomplished martial artist and says things like “Prepare to die!” Why? Because Road House, ye idiot. In fact, that would be my default answer to every question that one would ask when exposed to the film’s intoxicating allure of masculine absurdity for the first time. It’s no surprise at all that it only had one reigning producer and it was The Producer, the king of 80’s action cinema himself, the man who gifted the world with Shane Black…. the legendary Joel Silver. He brought us Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Last Boy Scout, and The Matrix, but Road House remains one of Silver’s greatest accomplishments. Seems like that could be said of anyone involved with this film, which would make it one hell of a career peak.
The Double Deuce is the kind of place where, in the words of its owner, “they sweep up the eyeballs after closing”. It’s an old school saloon in a dusty Wild West town that is so sparsely populated it could have been built on a studio backlot. Dalton whips the bounce staff into fighting shape in no time flat and makes the Deuce so civil a nightspot you could bring your kids; after all, they’re going to see sex and violence at some point in their life anyway. Why wait? Our Zen philosopher/cooler king manages to make time in between bare knuckle brawls (HEY IT’S HIS JOB!) to find love with the town’s sexiest doctor Elizabeth Clay (Kelly Lynch), but she conveniently has a complicated past with Wesley that doesn’t make life in his little kingdom any easier for Dalton.
Ah, a love triangle. You know, for the ladies. Unfortunately, my fine friends, Road House is also the ultimate manly man B-movie so that means this particular triangle is resolved with fist fights, gun battles, explosions, and a throat torn open as the cherry on top of this delicious hot fudge sundae of cinema. The mayhem is captured in all its smoky, sleazy, Day-Glo, mullet-topped glory through the immaculate widescreen cinematography of the great Dean Cundey, the man whose work has graced some of the greatest films of the past half-century, from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and John Carpenter’s Halloween and The Thing to the Back to the Future trilogy and Steven Spielberg’s seminal summer blockbuster Jurassic Park.
One thing that became clear to me after my umpteenth viewing of Road House courtesy of this new Blu-ray was how much every character in the film wanted to fuck Dalton. I’m not kidding, folks. Hardly a second passes by where a person, be they lady or gentleman, isn’t undressing Swayze with their eyes. No wonder our humble hero is constantly keeping his distance and playing it cool until Lynch makes her grand entrance…. well it isn’t so grand, but it does qualify as an entrance.
Something else that finally occurred to me during my recent viewing of Road House – the cast is impossibly cool. You have Swayze in the performance of his career, the role he was born to play, but you also have Lynch at her finest (in her breakthrough role oddly enough) just oozing laidback cool and smoldering sex appeal and the always welcome Sam Elliott proving how too cool for any school he was as Dalton’s laconic mentor Wade Garrett. Ben Gazzara, a legend for the edgy, intense performances he gave in the films of John Cassavetes, chews into his role of the evil Brad Wesley with the vicious pleasure of a pit bull snacking on a raw slice of chop sirloin, and Marshall Teague makes for one of the greatest henchmen in the history of cinema as his coiled cobra of a right-hand man. His showdown with Swayze is a battle for the ages, a live-action round of Mortal Kombat complete with gruesome “finishing move”.
We also have punk rock icon John Doe as a skeevy bartender and Wesley’s no-account nephew, Kevin Tighe (Matewan) as the Double Deuce’s besieged owner, Kathleen Wilhoite (Murphy’s Law) as the Deuce’s spunkiest waitress with a fondness for singing, hardcore wrestling great Terry Funk as an ill-tempered bouncer Dalton fires after arriving at the Deuce, Joe Unger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Anthony De Longis (Masters of the Universe) as a pair of Wesley thugs, Julie Michaels (Doctor Mordrid) as Wesley’s blonde bombshell gal pal, and Tom Finnegan (Repo Man) as the town’s chief of police. There’s also brief appearances from Keith David (The Thing), Patricia Tallman (Knightriders), and the voice of Cobra Commander and Starscream himself, Chris Latta (credited as Christopher Collins) as a pervert who charges other pervs to fond his wife’s breasts.
Michael Kamen’s score sounds like rejected cues from the soundtrack recording sessions for Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, which make sense given who Road House’s producer happens to be, but they do their job well primarily in the second half. The first is given over to an album’s worth of covers performed by the Double Deuce’s house band captained by Dalton’s loyal blind friend Cody, played by the late blues-rock musician Jeff Healey, that include hits made famous by the Doors, Cream, Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Little Richard. They even do a mean version of “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky”, one of the better cuts off Bob Dylan’s unfairly maligned Empire Burlesque album, over the end credits.
The only thing Road House doesn’t have in its arsenal are laser-blasting dwarves riding pterodactyls to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries”, but now I know what’s going at the end of my first produced screenplay. Speaking of screenplays, the one for Road House has a pretty sweet pedigree – David Lee Henry, which is actually a pseudonym for novelist R. Lance Hill, also co-wrote Hal Ashby’s final film 8 Million Ways to Die (a better-than-average Lawrence Block adaptation) with Oliver Stone and scripted Steven Seagal’s finest action vehicle Out for Justice solo, while Hilary Henkin went on to serve as the original writer on Barry Levinson’s scathing political satire Wag the Dog before David Mamet was brought in for rewrites. Thanks to this crack writing team, Road House doesn’t end up as another brainless B-movie; it knows exactly what it is and does its damndest to be the greatest example of its genre, and you have to possess something in the way of functioning gray matter in order for that to be possible.
Previous Blu-ray releases of Road House, including multiple issues of the same bare-bones disc by MGM, utilized a fine-looking transfer sourced from an older video master that hardly represented the best the film could look in any home viewing format. Shout! Factory’s collector’s edition set (part of their new “Shout Select” line) is packing a fresh 1080p high-definition presentation of a recent scan of the interpositive in 2K resolution that was supervised and approved by cinematographer Cundey and framed in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Replete with colors vibrant and strong, gorgeous black levels, and a balanced and consistent grain structure, this latest transfer is by far the greatest and will doubtfully ever be surpassed. Every trace of print damage from previous video editions – dirt, scratches, etc. – has been removed or at the very least made unnoticeable. Texture and details are very crisp and look better than ever before; sweat glistens, blood reddens, and those blazing pink neon signs can really singe your retinas now.
Shout! Factory has supplied the vastly improved transfer with two chest-thumping 24-bit audio options. First we have an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that spreads the activity across all channels with well-balanced volume and a pleasing lack of distortion. You hear everything, from the lively music to the snapping bones and screams of pain, as clear as a bell getting punched repeatedly by a drunk NASCAR fanatic. MGM’s 2009 Region A Blu was the first home video release of Road House to come with a 5.1 option because until then previous DVDs only had a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, as the film had been released theatrically with a Dolby Spectral Recording track. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 option included on this release is only a modest step down from the 5.1 mix since the various components are clustered a bit more tightly together but still provide plenty of activity to occupy both channels without any noticeable flaws in the overall presentation. English subtitles have also been included.
Shout has really loaded this sucker up with extra features, some of which were debuted on MGM’s 2006 Region 1 collector’s edition DVD. The first disc contains the movie itself and two worthwhile audio commentaries. Director Herrington holds court all by his lonesome on the first track but he provides a solid and informative overview of the film’s production with little dead air punctuating his observations and anecdotes. Filmmaker Kevin Smith and his friend and producer Scott Mosier headline the second track, a commentary that first discussed recording on the 10th anniversary DVD release of Clerks, and it’s a hilarious discussion between two longtime devoted fans of the film that’s exactly what you would expect from the guys involved.
Moving on over to Disc 2, we start off with “I Thought You’d Be Bigger: The Making of Road House” (63 minutes), a newly-produced retrospective documentary that assembles most of the surviving members of the cast and crew to wax nostalgic about the roles they performed in helping this timeless masterwork of cinema become a reality. It doesn’t adhere to a traditional structure of following the film’s path from script to screen, instead breaking up into a slew of topics that the interviewees discuss in quote-worthy soundbites dripping with amazement on the level of “I can’t believe we got away with this shit”.
“A Conversation with Rowdy Herrington” (30 minutes) brings in the director to repeat and occasionally expand on what he already on his commentary and in the new documentary. “Pain Don’t Hurt: The Stunts of Road House” (22 minutes) covers the planning and execution of the film’s various action sequences and the careful, balletic coordination of the fights by the one and only Benny “The Jet” Urquidez.
“Pretty Good for a Blind White Boy: The Music of Road House” (9 minutes) talks about the contributions of Jeff Healey and his spectacular band. Most of the people interviewed in the other featurettes offer fond remembrances of their late star in “Remembering Patrick Swayze” (15 minutes). “On the Road House” (17 minutes) is a shorter retrospective from the 2006 DVD and its inclusion is necessary for the participation of Swayze.
“What Would Dalton Do?” (12 minutes) interviews actual bouncers about their work and how accurately Road House portrays what they do for a living. “On the Set” is a very brief (4 minutes) collection of behind-the-scenes footage without narration. This feature was likely included in the film’s electronic press kit, as were “Patrick Swayze Profile” (3 minutes) and “Selected Soundbites” (11 minutes). The latter is worth a watch just to see the late Gazzara talk about his character and acting philosophy.
An animated photo gallery (3 minutes) set to some to the Jeff Healey Band’s Dylan cover and the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes) close out the supplements package.
Between the gorgeous new high-definition transfer and the plethora of new and archival supplements, it’s safe to say that Shout! Factory’s new 2-disc Blu-ray release of Road House will be the definitive word on this deliriously gonzo action cult classic for generations to come. Fans will love the hell out of it, newbies might be amazed, and haters can invest in a Garry Marshall flick instead. Remember, if you find a copy of this Blu-ray at your neighborhood Best Buy…. take it outside (but pay for it first). And don’t forget to be nice. Absolutely highly recommended.