Monday, April 23, 2007

"I want you to be nice until it's time to not be nice."

Patrick Swayze was once not only a biggish star, but almost an action star. How the same man who was in "Dirty Dancing" could have aspired to Willis/Stallone/Schwarzenegger status baffles me. But then he is some sort of martial arts type expert, he sported a mullet easily comparable with anything Michael Douglas offered in the 1980s, and the ladies liked him, coz he was good at dancing and stuff. So the Suits knew that if they got him in a decent - by 80s standards, remember - action film, then blokes would come, just coz it was action, and their girlfriends wouldn't mind too much either.

Which led to films like "Next of Kin" wherein Swayze plays a hard-as-nails ex-hillbilly Chicago cop named Truman Gates looking for revenge for his brothers murder, while also trying to prevent his other, none-more-hillbilly brother, played by Liam Neeson, from taking the law into his own hands. Thats no classic, let me tell you. Though it may be better than "Steel Dawn", wherein Swayze plays a wandering warrior in a post-apocalyptic wildnerness who wanders into a shoddy "Mad Max 2" rip-off and has to fight his way out of it while wearing a little headband. The only other thing I can remember about it is that Arnold Vosloo and Brion James are in it, if you like that kind of thing. Its possibly one of the worst films I've ever seen.
Of course, the absolute Daddy of Swayze action films is "Point Break", which is too good for a post like this, but coming up a pretty distant second is the semi-semi-classic "Road House".

Directed by that poet of the crummy, c-string action movie, Rowdy Herrington (whose name sounds like it came from an action film, and who was also responsible for "Striking Distance", obviously Bruce Willis' greatest achievement by some way....I think he used to be a stuntman, which is probably one of the few professions open to you when you're called "Rowdy") Road House is basically a Steven Seagal movie without Steven Seagal. Seagal movies often take the form of extended episodes of the A-Team. People have a problem with some dastardly bully, generally in some remote backwood, Seagal happens upon them or is contacted to help, he arrives and throws people over his hip until the bad guys all give up. "Road House" follows this A-Team template, only its not quite as good as your average episode of the A-Team. But it does have its strange pleasures.

Patrick Swayze plays "Dalton" (just the one name - so hard he doesn't need another one) a good-looking bouncer. Yes, this is an action movie about that most noble, heroic and admired of professions: the bouncer. "Not tonight lads,regulars only" is some post-scrap one-liner. Dalton is no one-dimensional action man, though. Hes a two-dimensional action man. He has a degree in philosophy from NYU. His wisdom extends to such homilies as "Nobody ever wins a fight" spoken after he quite clearly has won a fight, and "Pain don't hurt", when much of the rest of the film is devoted to depictions of him causing pain to various characters and them plainly not enjoying the experience. He comes to a two-bit redneck town and starts working as a bouncer at the Double-Deuce, the kind of massive bar commonly seen in american movies which seems absolutely designed to host huge brawls. Only soon he discovers that the town is run/owned/controlled by sinister War veteran Ben Gazzara and his mob of (distinctly A-team bad guys) goons. Theres a fat one, a mean one, a dumb one etc etc. Theres also a Dangerous one, who may have the measure of Dalton, we feel, who we know will enjoy a private showdown with Dalton at some later point, perhaps near the end of the film. What an actor with the career of Ben Gazzara is doing here is never clear, but to his credit, Gazzara seems to enjoy the experience, his eyes always lit by some private amusement.

Dalton wows everyone with his weird little twinkle-toed "I'm a dancer,you know" walk, his martial arts moves, his fuzzy Martin Riggs hair and his sad bullshit zen philosophy and meditation. There are a couple of decent bouts of fisticuffs between Dalton and the goons. Dalton always wins. Dalton meets and falls for (the absolutely, ridiculously gorgeous goddess without, in this movie at any rate, a visible flaw) local doctor Kelly Lynch, who Gazzara once had a thing for. Kelly and Dalton have raunchy, Whitesnake-video sex in his barn-loft house to Otis Redding music. Thats a bit of a high point, actually. Anyway, eventually everything gets worse and serious and Dalton calls in his good buddy, the grizzled old bouncer "Wade", played with grizzled old charisma by Sam Elliot, an American natural treasure if ever there was one. Wade has a pronounced limp from some old fight, but hes still mean as a snake and knows all the old tricks. He and Dalton call each other "amigo" to evoke some old Tijuana-latin soul sort of vibe and dispel any repressed homosexual undercurrents. We discover that Dalton has a dark secret, accounting for his strange vulnerability. He killed a man once when the man came at him with a gun while Dalton was having (undoubtedly raunchy, Whitesnake-video style) sex with the mans wife. Dalton killed him in self-defence and has been carrying the guilt around ever since. He expresses his guilt in sequences where he attacks punch-bags with some vigour and sits looking achingly over the lake beside his barn.

Eventually it all explodes and Gazzara's men kill Wade - which nobody saw coming - and blow up the house of the crazy, harmless old coot who lives near Dalton. Dalton and the mean, martial-arts practicing Dangerous goon who may just be a match for him (hes so mean he tells Dalton that he fucked guys like him in prison, which in the Reaganite world of the 80s action film, translates as: not only is he mean, hes gay! He must die!) have a pretty cool knock-down dragout one-on-one by the lake. Its all very violent and people kick each other in the face a lot. Finally Dalton snaps and rips the goon's throat out with his fingers (a skill we should have been taught in school rather than learning about the likes of algebra - which will prove more useful in life, I ask you?) when the goon rather rashly tells him that he was in fact the one who killed Wade. Kelly Lynch rushes onto the scene with impeccable timing to find Dalton standing there looking tortured with the goon's adams apple in his hand and she runs away, understandably upset by this. He drags the corpse into the lake shouting at Ben Gazzara's Big House (which is handily located on the other side of the lake) in his existential despair.

The next day he goes over and kills the lot of them. Cars explode and all. There are plenty of examples of the most important staple of 80s action films: the huge orange fireball. Its the business. He probably goes off with Kelly Lynch at the end, the dog. But I can't remember. The next year he starred in "Ghost" and his reputation as the guy in quintessentially chicky-flicks was sealed. Even the mighty "Point Break" couldn't change his rep. And his career began to slide, with the occasional appearance in a quality film - "Donnie Darko", most notably - surrounded by lots of dross. He would be happy to be in anything as good as "Road House" these days, when he seems mostly regarded as a nostalgia-case, an almost kitsch reminder of "Dirty Dancing". Rowdy Herrington, meanwhile, somehow scrambled out of the action film ghetto. His last film was "Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius" a biopic of the golf legend with Jim Caviezel. Surely that can't have many orange fireballs, can it? Surely the stuntman in Rowdy secretly misses them. "Road House" itself has become a franchise, almost 20 years after the fact. A sequel, the straight to DVD "Road House 2: Last Call" came out last year, starring Jonathan Schaech and with Will Patton in the "what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here?" Gazarra part. Reportedly, its not a patch on the original. How could it be, in the absence of Swayze?



Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I get the appeal in a trashy action kinda way, but beyond that..I'm lost.

I remember enjoying the blind steel guitar player and his band, and wondering how a bar so full of violence and trouble managed to stay afloat until 'Dalton' turned up.

I never saw nobody win a fight by kicking the other guy in the shins neither, but I can watch Sam Elliott all day no matter what he's in.

Good post.

1:06 am  
Blogger David N said...

You just know that Sam Elliott's mustache is a more talented actor than Patrick Swayze.

It finds its true glory and takes centre-stage in Tombstone. Kurt Russell goes up against him and tries to win that particular tache-duel, but Sam's tache is in a different class. It truly earns the Ned Flanders description: cookie-duster.

He looks strange in films where hes clean shaven. Just - not right.

1:30 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Him and his 'tache are going to be the only good things in Golden Compass.

4:44 pm  
Blogger Ross said...

Is Sam Elliot's 'tache insured? Must be.

You wouldn't really want to watch him all day in Ghostrider, though.

9:46 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Hes obviously a Marvel fan. Ghost Rider and the Hulk on his resume. He would have made a great J. Jonah Jameson if J.K. Simmons had not been born to play that part. He'd even make a cool Forge in X-Men.

12:15 am  
Blogger Ross said...

I've just seen I Witness, Rowdy Herrington's film before the golfing biopic, and it was actuallly really good. It stars Jeff Daniels on top form as a human rights organisation investigator, in Tijuana to observe a union vote, who gets caught in the corruption of the Mexican police, US corporations and drug gangs. It's got a great cast and reminds me in a way of Stone's Salvador, though this is somehow more and less gritty at the same time.
It's also like a less ambitious Traffic.
Whatever it is, it's a big surprise going by his past career of things like Striking Distance and Gladiator, which is of course the Cuba Gooding Jr one.
It's interesting to see that he's worked with some actors again, with James Spader and Cuba both twice - obviously he's not complete box office poison.

Going by IMDB Rowdy was a gaffer before he got to direct.

12:33 am  

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