don’t throw stones; you don’t know

On Friday I had the neighbors, Ryan and Erin, over for wine and cheese. We sifted through each other’s movie piles to find good films to laugh over. Neither Erin nor Ryan had seen Road House, so we put that in first.

If marginal utility theory means anything, then I should get more value out of most purchases than I spend on them. But sometimes the ratio skyrockets so far out of whack that I give thanks to the healing power of capitalism. My Dickies messenger bag, for example: I spent $50 on it three years ago and it has easily brought a thousand dollars of convenience into my life. Or my copy of Mind Performance Hacks. Or the Bed of Ages: a Simmons model that the company no longer makes, that I dropped just over a grand on (including frame and headboard) five years ago. I spent enough on the Bed that it’s a close thing, but I still come out black.

Road House has vastly exceeded the $8 I paid for it in the Target discount bin. In the two years I’ve owned it, I’ve watched it at least six times. Maybe one of those times I watched it alone. Every other time, I’ve had friends over, cracked some beers and introduced them to Patrick Swayze’s magnum opus.

Why does Road House work on every level? The fight scenes are fun, as I’ve said before. The hayseed, outdated setting allows for some ironic laughs – particularly when the locals gawk over Swayze’s tanned bod. “He looks like he’s from a coast!”, Erin commented.

But what makes Road House so oddly great is that it’s a well-paced film on a picayune subject. You can almost watch the hero’s status rising and falling on screen, as if on a stock ticker. Anyone who wants to write an action movie should own this on DVD and watch it until it breaks. I am not kidding in any way.

Afterward, we watched Demolition Man, which has a similarly tight plot even if the setting makes us snicker. Stallone, Bullock and Snipes each have one setting (smart-aleck, perky and cocky, respectively), and the movie suffers whenever it asks them to deviate. The story shepherds our heroes from setpiece to setpiece, even if we have to swallow some improbable coincidences to get them there. Perhaps that’s one of the benchmarks for a good action movie: how easily we can believe the transition between car chase and shootout.

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and I owe it all to you

Patrick Swayze died Monday evening, succumbing to a long battle with cancer at the age of 57. This gives me an opportunity to go into detail about one of my favorite Swayze movies: Road House.

Road House is a great movie.

I enjoy Road House without irony or shame. While the fashions depicted therein might be dated and parochial, I don’t find them any sillier than the flat doughboy helmets Burt Lancaster busts out of the armory in From Here to Eternity. If the trashiness of the setting keeps you from taking the movie seriously, then imagine it takes place in a Brooklyn nightclub, with a hip-hop soundtrack, and our hero’s a storied young bruiser from Marcy. It’ll be just as dated 20 years from now.

In Road House, the heroes are larger-than-life heroes, and the villains absolute villains. Patrick Swayze, as Dalton, plays a man who brings deep philosophy to a dirty business. And Ben Gazzarra, as the sinister Brad Wesley, carves up the town of Jasper with glee. Road House abandons naturalism for bold strokes of melodrama. Does it make sense that an entire town would stand idly by while Wesley’s hired goons drive a monster truck through a car dealership? No. But it gives Gazzarra an opportunity to cackle and Swayze an opportunity to glare. And it also ends in one of the movie’s funniest lines: “you got insurance, don’t you?”

Of course, no one settles into Road House for the Manichean struggle between good and evil. They want to see fights. And not only are there plenty of fights – one-on-one, three-on-one, fist-on-knife, pool cue vs. face, holdout pistol vs. throat rip – but they’re all well-staged. Not even our heroes – Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliott, as the father figure we all wish we’d had – can take down half a dozen men and walk away fresh. They end most fights staggering and sore, drenched in sweat with their arms hanging at their sides. And those are the fights they win. Compare that to Jason Bourne, who can disarm six cops without mussing his hundred-dollar haircut.

Road House is that rare bird: a movie that devotes excellent craftsmanship to picayune subject matter. The fight scenes are entertaining and well paced. The dialogue’s as realistic as Shakespeare and twice as quotable. And Jeff Healey’s raspy blues-rock soundtrack keeps the whole movie funky. So what if it takes place in a town in Kansas that no one’s ever heard of?

Swayze pulled off the lead like no one else could. He carried himself with that tricky blend of lethal readiness and total serenity: a man who knew how to fight but preferred not to. Consider Swayze, the reluctant warrior, in Dirty Dancing, who suffers false accusations under the club’s upper-crust guests; or in Point Break, who knows that Keanu Reeves is an “Eff. Bee. Aye. Agent!” but can’t bring himself to kill him. This is how we should want all our men to be: confident but never cocky, vigilant but rarely violent.

Rest easy, mijo. We’ll see you.

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