1989, Movies

Road House (1989, Rowdy Herrington)

This is a goofy spin on the “drifter comes to a small town cleans up the town” subgenre of American film, only with an ’80s twist. The ’80s twist is that weird idea that there are “stars” in rote, blue-collar jobs. It’s a little bit like Cocktail where we’re supposed to believe that there are bartenders so in demand people will fight over them. Only we’re talking about bouncers, here. Anyway…

This is a very goofy movie and I’m not sure where to begin. Swayze’s character is working in “New York City” and it’s very clearly somewhere less dense. (Or Jersey? I know it was filmed in California but the bar they chose could never be in Manhattan, that’s for sure.) Swayze’s character is offered an absolutely hysterical amount of money in order to go somewhere outside of Kansas City. He is given the 2024 equivalent of $12,500 up front and $1,250 a night. We were trying to figure out over how long a period of time this movie takes place and we figure, with the bar renovations (we never see) it has to be at least a month, right? So this guy is paying Swayze’s character, a bouncer, at minimum, the 2024 equivalent of over $40,000 for a month’s work. What? Why isn’t Swayze’s character retired? Why doesn’t Tighe’s character just buy some other town and be the Brad Wesley of that other town? He appears to be rich enough.

Jasper, Missouri I looked up. It barely has any people. Gazzara’s character is bringing services to a much larger town than the real Jasper. (Jasper also looks oddly like southern California.) Why did Jeff Healey’s band take a gig in such a small town? I guess because Jasper is a stand-in for some bigger place. (At one point Dayton is mentioned in comparison. Dayton is currently something like 147 times the size of Jasper. I am not making that up.)

I guess I mention all of this because there is an air of heightened unreality to the whole thing:

  • the star bouncer who can be played the 2024 equivalent of an annual salary of $500k to clean up a bar in small town Missouri
  • the bar owner who has enough money to pay a star bouncer to do that, but can’t seem to afford to come up with any other solution
  • the idea that a small town could support multiple bars, one that can earn that much money to pay such a star bouncer
  • the idea that a town like this is, in 1989, still run by a town boss answerable to no one, not the state government, not the federal government and not the media.

That last one is a common trope about these movies but it makes less sense in 1989 than it did in 1889 or even 1939. (In the movie’s defense: I have been reading about a town in Oklahoma, I think, that still seems to have a clique running it, who are trying to run the media out of town. But that story seems a lot more nuanced than this.)

There are a lot of boobs and a lot of fights. I guess that’s the point. But to me the film really feels like a missed opportunity.

When Gazzara’s character has his henchmen literally runover another man’s business with their monster truck, I saw what this film should have been: a satire of the “drifter wanders into a small town” subgenre. Swayze’s character has a PhD (ha!) in philosophy. It should be in something far more ridiculous. And every other opportunity for ridiculousness in this movie should have been upped or taken if it wasn’t. Because it is a ridiculous conceit in 1989 and it just doesn’t work.

Gazzara’s character is a caricature but not enough of one to really work. He’s barely a character and for some reason he likes his nephew and his henchmen running drunkenly around his property, unlike every other power-mad rich guy ever. The guy should be a Bond villain; why go half way when you can go all the way?

I just think this would have been so much better if it had been a parody or satire of its inspirations instead of just a goofy action movie that can’t figure out whether it’s serious or not.


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