B-Movie Cult Classics Unearthed Watching Late-Night HBO in College (pt. 3)

As cultural anthropology teaches us, with the rise of organized societies came the need to develop rites of passage into adulthood, with many such rituals involving a mature understanding of the concepts at hand and proof of dedication. For example, in Judaism the 13-year-old celebrant of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah must engage in complex Torah cantillation. In Catholicism, the Confirmation candidate must be in a state of grace and have the sacrament bestowed upon them by a bishop:

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The Amish, of course, have Rumspringa. And Central and South Americans have Quineañera:

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In Ethiopia, young men of the Hamar tribe engage in ceremonial cattle-leaping. A continent away, in the northern Amazon, the Sateré-Mawé tribe sedates venomous bullet ants (Paraponera cravat), pours scores of the ill-tempered bastards into gloves made from leaves and, once the ants awake, test the mettle of the tribe’s male youth by forcing them to insert their hands inside for five minutes of frenzied biting, the pain that, according to Wikipedia, manifests itself as “waves of burning, throbbing, all-consuming pain that continues unabated for up to 24 hours.”

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Having years ago completed one of the more sedate rituals mentioned above, The Conflicted Film Snob can report that, in terms recasting himself as an adult, his particular ceremony failed miserably. He left as he’d entered: a clueless 13-year-old in a blazer, khakis and those suede desert boots everybody and his brother wore back in the early 1980s.

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As to whether blame for this failure lay with The Conflicted Film Snob himself or the fact that the rite in which he participated didn’t involve farm animals or biting insects is immaterial. What matters is that an epiphany eventually did occur, albeit years later and in a non-parochial manner, when he stumbled upon a movie his sophomore year of college that finally provided a roadmap into adulthood, answering such hot questions as “How does one become a man?” and “How does said man fit into the community at large?” and “Is manhood contingent on an aggressive mullet?” and, finally, “How does a man react to women sporting enough hair to snap the arm of a cotton scale?”

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We’re speaking of Road House, of course, director Rowdy Herrington’s 1989 classic starring thespian/dancer/singer Patrick Swayze:

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On its surface, Road House seems a trifle, telling the story of James Dalton (Swayze), a legendary bouncer recruited to help turn a violent, hillbilly infested roadhouse into a high-class joint. Fights ensue; threats are made; glass shatters, alcohol is spilled; the town bully stoops to new lows; breasts are flashed; a blind man sings rock-and-roll; townspeople revolt; a throat is ripped out; squibs are detonated; order is restored; Dalton gets the girl.

As with all great art, though, any attempt to summarize Road House does the film a great injustice. Because here is a movie full of indelible scenes shot through with manly subtext, the kind of stuff The Conflicted Film Snob had been searching for since the onset of adolescence, some of which I’d like to discuss in more detail below. (Please note that each capsule will be followed by an indication of which manly lesson was gleaned from the scene and, finally, an overall quantification of the scene’s brilliance using a metric developed by The Conflicted Film Snob specifically for this post, the Mullet-o-Meter™).

Scene #1–Dalton’s recruitment

The Gist: After quickly establishing its T&A bonafides, the camera breaks from the derriere featured in the photo above and glides its way inside the nightclub, where it lingers on evidence of the establishment’s high-class clientele, including ample décolletage…

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…a waitress carrying a serving tray weighed down with c-notes…

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…some guy boasting about his AmEx Gold Card (“I found some gold plastic!”)…

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…before finally settling on the man himself, James Dalton, bouncer extraordinaire, martial arts expert, adherent to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, dedicated Buddhist and connoisseur of fine coiffure:

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A disturbance breaks out between an inebriated couple. Dalton deals with it quickly and calmly. The instigator, having lost face, stabs Dalton with a penknife and then challenges him to a fight outside. Dalton agrees. The two gather up their hair and leave the bar. Instead of fighting, though, Dalton, channeling The Art of War, closes the door on the troublemaker and his similarly coiffured friend. (“To win 100 battles is not the height of skill, to subdue the enemy without fighting is” — Sun Tzu)

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Watching this (non) fight play out is Frank Tilghman (Kevin Tighe), owner of a bar outside Kansas City and a man desperately in need of Dalton’s particular skill set.

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Tilghman tracks Dalton to the bathroom and makes his pitch while the bouncer casually sews up his shoulder:

“I have a little club outside Kansas City called the Double Duece. Used to be a sweet deal. Now it’s the kind of place they sweep up the eyeballs after close. Anyway, I’ve come into a little bit of money. I’d like to make a better life for myself. I need somebody to help me clean the place up. I need the best.”

Dalton, in need of a new challenge, accepts under certain conditions:

“$5,000 up front, $500 per night, you pay all medical expenses. I run the show…completely.”

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A deal is struck; after work Dalton loads a sweet cassette tape into the sweet stereo in his sweet Mercedes 560SEC ($5,000 up front, $500 per night…) and off he drives to Jasper, MO.

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Manhood lesson(s) learned:

  • Sewing is a practical life skill applicable in situations much more serious than darning socks
  • An American Express Gold Card in the billfold guarantees a more fulfilling life
  • Don’t engage in hand-to-hand combat if it can be avoided, especially if your opponents look like Siegfried & Roy before Roy was bitten by his tiger:

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Bonus info nugget(s): If, like me, you recognize the actor playing Frank Tilghman but can’t quite put your finger on where from, here’s a clue:

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Yes, actor Kevin Tighe played firefighter-paramedic Roy DeSoto on the NBC series Emergency!which ran from 1972-1977.

Mullet-o-Meter™ rating (10-mullet scale):

Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet

Scene #2–Dalton meets Dr. Clay at the Jasper ER

The Gist: The Double Deuce is indeed a mess; not only is its stage protected by chicken wire, not only is its clientele guilty of enough late-80s hair violations to merit a shutdown from the health inspector, but brawls seem to break out on the hour:

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No sooner has Dalton taken full control of the dive’s security operations than he begins to make enemies, mostly due to his removal of current employees engaged in unprofessional conduct, including the purveyance of drugs in the ladies’ room, skimming cash from the register, turning a blind eye towards underaged drinking, fornication with the clientele and general bad attitude.

One such fired employee happens to be the idiot nephew of Jasper’s de facto bossman, Brad Wesley, an antagonist played with such scenery chewing bravado by the great Ben Gazzara (“Christ, I’m just like you, come up the hard way on the streets of Chicago! You know, when I came to this town after Korea there was nothing! I brought the mall here!…I got 7-11!…I got the Fotomat!…Christ, JCPenney is coming because of me! You ask anybody they’ll tell you!”) that one suspects a paramedic was on call when he filmed his scenes in case he need the Heimlich administered.

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Idiot nephew

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Ben Gazzarra voraciously chewing

Some of Wesley’s heavies return with the idiot nephew to demand back his job. Dalton and Tilghman refuse, which isn’t particularly surprising considering the henchmen consist of one guy who looks like a high school math teacher and another who’s so fat he probably hasn’t seen his feet in a decade:

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This being Road House, a fight breaks out in which Dalton is slashed by a knife–not that this stops him from kicking some righteous ass. Later, he visits the ER for stitches. The doctor on call appears in the form of Elizabeth Clay (Kelly Lynch), not doubt an accurate depiction of your average ER doctor:

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Dalton has brought along his complete medical history (“Saves time.”) to which, after perusing, Dr. Clay notes that he “can add nine staples to the dossier of 31 broken bones, two bullet wounds, nine puncture wounds and four stainless steel screws.” He refuses her offer for a local. “Do you enjoy pain?” she asks. “Pain don’t hurt,” Dalton replies, his pores fairly oozing machismo. Further delving into his file Dr. Clay is intrigued that Dalton owns a degree in philosophy from NYU, which goes a long way to explaining his choice of words when answering her question about whether he actually ever wins a fight: “Nobody ever wins a fight.” They part with lust in their eyes and an invite for the doctor to stop by Dalton’s place of employ for a coffee, an offer she takes him up on a couple days later, showing up to the Double Deuce dressed in picnic tablecloth:

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Manhood lesson(s) learned:

  • A stage protected by chicken wire is never a good sign
  • Local anesthetic is for wussies (“Pain don’t hurt”)
  • Just because you’re a professional bouncer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue higher education
  • There are maybe only three people worldwide who can get away with wearing a checkered tablecloth for a night on the town. Kelly Lynch is one.

Mullet-o-Meter™ rating (10-mullet scale):

Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet

Scene #3–Dalton finally kicks some ass

The Gist: To those Double Deuce employees who’ve survived Dalton’s culling, he holds a team meeting in which he explains his bouncing philosophy:

“All you’ve got to do is follow three simple rules. One: never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected. Two: take it outside. Never start anything inside the bar unless it’s absolutely necessary. Three: Be nice. If someone gets in your face, calls you a cocksucker, I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him, but be nice. If you can’t walk him one of the others will help you and you both be nice. I want you to remember, it’s a job, nothing personal. I want you to be nice until it’s time not to be nice.”

Not all of his co-workers are sold on Dalton’s ability to effect change:

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 10.02.50 AM Morgan: [fellow bouncer and general hothead] “So this Dalton character, what’s his story?”

Unknown-5 Cody: [the Double Deuce’s blind guitar-playing band leader] “His story is, you fuck with him he’ll seal your fate.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 10.02.50 AM Morgan: “Yeah? So far he hasn’t shown me shit.”

This quickly changes when Dalton finally displays his wares, single-handedly subduing a drunk, knife-wielding customer by using the unsuspecting bozo’s forehead to cleave a table in two:

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As Cody so rightly pointed out: “You fuck with him he’ll seal your fate.”

Manhood lesson(s) learned:

  • Be nice…until it’s time not to be nice

Mullet-o-Meter™ rating (10-mullet scale):

Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet

Scene #4–Dalton’s called out by henchman Jimmy

The Gist: From their very first meeting at Red’s Auto Parts, there’s no love lost between Dalton and Jimmy, Welsey’s number-one enforcer and connoisseur of meaningful stares:

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Though the two men share certain traits, chief among them extreme proficiency in the martial arts, mullets, violent pasts (Dalton once killed man in self-defense; Jimmy, at one point, notes “I used to fuck guys like you in prison!”), Jimmy represents pretty much everything Dalton stands against, stuff like showboating and aggression and extortion and late-night pool partying and monster-truck driving and arson and misogyny. Their intense mutual dislike leads to the first of two physical confrontations, this one about midway through the film, at the now-classy Double Deuce (no chicken wire! Dressed to the nines in neon trim!), at long last the establishment of Tilghman’s dreams:

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This being Road House, no sooner is the place operating with the precision of a swiss timepiece than in walks trouble in the form of Brad Wesley and his hillbilly acolytes, Jimmy among them. The regulars freeze with fear, but Wesley breaks the ice by insisting the band play a song so that his moll, Denise, can perform a strip tease, a dance in which it’s revealed that her underwear has enough frilly acreage to double as a cape:

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Eventually, the chivalrous Dalton walks her off the stage, noting to Wesley that “You’re going to have a pet, keep it on a leash.” As if inspired by the comment, Wesley snaps his fingers towards the pool room and out walks Jimmy, spoiling for a fight:

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Cue stick in hand, in no time he and his mullet and his earring have disposed of the entire Double Deuce bouncing crew save Dalton and his good buddy and mentor Wade Garrett, played by the gravelly voiced Sam Elliot, one of the coolest men ever to walk the earth:

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Instead of just calling out his two remaining foes from his position on the dance floor, Jimmy does something truly miraculous. Gathering a head of steam…

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…he wedges his cue under the fat belly of one of the bouncers he’s dispatched…

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…and, using the cue like a pole vault, takes to the air, tucks into a summersault and lands feet-first atop the stage:

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“You!” he screams, pointing towards Garrett and Dalton:

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Not since Errol Flynn in Captain Blood or Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad has mano-a-mano combat been depicted with such acrobatic grace. Surely this scene will be deconstructed by scholars for years to come.

Alas, a battle royale isn’t to be; no soon are Garrett and Jimmy squaring off than Wesley fires a pistol in the air and, gathering his minions, takes his leave of the bar. Jimmy and Dalton will meet once more, though, and only one will survive!

Manhood lesson(s) learned:

  • A gentleman always puts a stop to a woman engaged in a strip tease, but only after she’s exposed her breasts
  • The best way to be heard above a nightclub din is to fire a pistol into the ceiling
  • When looking to vault, an unconscious 300-lb. bouncer provides the perfect plant box from which to begin one’s vertical move

Mullet-o-Meter™ rating (10-mullet scale):

Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet Mullet

Only the greatest films have the power to make a real difference, to impart life lessons as naturally as fire imparts smoke. Road House is one of those films, a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of brilliant direction, writing, acting, photography, editing, stunt coordination and, most of all, hair styling. As such, it is The Conflicted Film Snob’s position that, in lieu of the various coming of age rituals mentioned above, especially the one involving biting ants, it should be required viewing for every adolescent boy and girl throughout the world. Simply put, regardless of color, creed or nationality, any child coming-of-age who’s exposed to this masterpiece will finally know what it truly means to be a man or a woman.

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