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Hard-Fought Conclusion: Road House Is Not A Bad Movie

By  · Published on December 9th, 2016

Zen and the art of throat-ripping.


The identity crisis of the Junkfood Cinema podcast is one we have been comfortable with since the first episode aired. We’re technically a “bad movie” podcast, but we never consider the movies we feature to be bad…even the categorically bad ones. Maybe that’s overstating, as we do at times recognize flaws, but for us when a film of questionable artistic contribution has some legitimate (if esoteric) merit, the experience of watching that film becomes worthwhile and therefore more than justifies the film’s existence.

What really sends us into (maximum) overdrive and (mega) forces our hand is when a movie is burdened with a longstanding, highly erroneous reputation of being bad. The creator of the Razzie Award, John Wilson, called 1989's Road House one of the 100 most enjoyably bad movies ever made, despite the film’s nomination for Five Golden Raspberry Awards in the year of its release. You want to know why you found it so enjoyable, John? Because despite the nominations from your historically and culturally irrelevant awards program, Road House is not a bad movie.

Road House gets falsely remembered as a bad movie thanks in large part to its subject matter. The story shines a spotlight on a subculture that it largely fabricated in the first place; supposing a world in which bouncers not only have established hierarchy, but can ‐ by excelling at the dubious art of bouncing ‐ achieve legendary status as a bouncer or as a cooler? A world in which notoriety follows excellence in “cooling” communicates and actually necessitates an exaggerated level of machismo, therefore the visual delivery system for this plot is heavy with shirtless tai-chi and a general preponderance of baby-oil-drenched nudity.

These elements date the movie, sure, and the subject matter has a hilariously inflated sense of importance. But a majority of the jockish muscleheadedness of Road House is entirely intentional; a playful jest to illustrate the absurd chauvinism of the era. Patrick Swayze’s Dalton is a man’s man, but he’s also a man unafraid to dial back manly expectations and let other men man themselves right into their own way. He is a bone-crushing fighter, but like Mr. Miyagi, he is secure enough in himself to not feel compelled to participate in every fray. Furthermore the character of Doc (Kelly Lynch), with her pacifist inward glance to this world of bar fights and kick-measuring, allows the audience to participate in an arms-length criticism of the culture that avoids costing the film any genre fan viewership.

Speaking of the genre, the lineup of talent behind the camera of Road House is worthy of Dalton levels of whispered legend. It was produced by Joel Silver, who reinvented the action genre in this era with both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. It was also scored by Michael Kamen, which is why Road House’s emotional beats sound like Lethal Weapon and its most brutal action beats are punctuated by what sounds like Die Hard’s jingly orchestrations. It was also shot by Dean Cundey, the DOP titan who photographed the likes of Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, and the majority of John Carpenter’s very best films just to lightly brush against his resume.

The cast of Road House is so overloaded with greatness that it can only afford to give Keith David one line in the movie; an impressive accomplishment and unforgivable tragedy rolled into one sentence. The (figurative and literal) one-two punch of Swayze and Sam Elliott elevates fight sequences, comedic patter, and makes substantive the emotional beats. These two espouse a zen-like mantra through the film, a bouncer’s bushido that makes the movie borderline intellectual. Yes, I said just said that. Road House is an action movie with a philosophy! To match their eastern wisdom, both Swayze and Elliott have an effortless old western, y-chromosome charm. They were also trained by a professional kickboxer so that their pugilistic encounters were equally as authentic as their camaraderie.

The question really isn’t whether Road House is a bad movie, but whether you are a fan of the movie that Road House is. It has a very specific target that it aims for, and it hits that target dead center, but there is nothing even remotely lazy about its form nor its process. It brings together some of the best craftsmen in the business to create something stronger, smarter, and more visually disciplined than one would expect from a movie about bouncers punching and kicking each other.

You may dislike what Road House is, but you cannot deny that it is a quality example of itself. Movies that accomplish this feat are often referred to as critic-proof or said to silence critics. Personally, I can think of no better figurative interpretation of silencing a critic than a third-act depiction of a very literally throat being very literally ripped out by Patrick Swayze’s very literal bare hands.

Want to take this argument outside? Download and listen to the latest episode of the Junkfood Cinema podcast with special guest Derek Mahr.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.