The following column is reprinted from the October issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem neccessary to leave out):
Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel
The recently late, not-so-great Patrick Swayze was easily among the most earnest of actors, a toned-up, adult Boy Scout with a modified mullet, a near perfect dancer’s ass, a model’s toothy smile, and the perpetual air of an aiming-to-please golden retriever. His career was a strange one, filled with cheesy box office hitaramas, grade C actioneers, confectionary TV mini-series, topped off with a bold splash of truly awful movies. Not without legit and sincere fans, he’ll be remembered for his athletic grace, his easy sincerity, and his low key yet pretty coyness
Not me though, I’ll remember him chiefly for two very specific film maven credentials, the first being his steady and often awe-inspiring run of exquisitely named movie characters. Think about it: He was Darrel Curtis in The Outsiders (’83), Jed in Red Dawn (’84), Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing (’87), Sam Wheat in Ghost (’90), and, oh yes sir, Bodhi in Point Break (’91), and, uh-huh, Vida in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (’95). With character monikers as resplendent as that, the acting stuff was gloriously secondary.
Lest we forget, Swayze also played another one- name figure, a lead role that perpetually resounds by simply uttering (in a quiet, but oh-so-tough, monotone) the eternally poetic sobriquet, Dalton. His second, towering forget-me-not credential is his nonpareil portrait of Dalton, the Zen/magisterial/mystical/ultra-masculine/mythical Wandering Bouncer in one of the baddest of all contempo bad movies, 1989’s Road House.
Although there have been some adventuresome film nitcrits willing to offer up theories that Road House (helmed by the you-couldn’t make-this-up Rowdy Herrington) is a subversive tone poem bent on undercutting the very blueprint of the exceptionally macho action film (evidenced by a co-writing credit of a female, Hilary Henkin, later responsible for Romeo is Bleeding and Wag the Dog), or, in direct contrast, an overt cinematic ballad of plainspoken homoerotic worship (evident in Swayze’s ever balletic fighting moves, or the camera’s continually adoring shots of his aforementioned rump), I will continue to celebrate Road House as a masterfully terrible movie, one that holds the viewer in a horrified hypnotic sway.
Road House centers around Swayze’s Dalton, entering a one horse town in order to preserve the sanctity of the holy Double Deuce, the iconic road house of the title. Dalton, tooling around in a Mercedes convertible and proudly holding a Ph.D. in philosophy from NYU, is a warrior-Buddha, and apparently makes quite the living straightening out juke joints and dive bars throughout our wary nation. Steeped in the wisdom of the Far East, ably to stitch his own gaping knife wounds, he possesses all the Big Answers, and seemingly glides through the air while performing bare-chested tai chi, old school face pummeling, and modern day throat-ripping fu. He turns down sex from the long-legged and big haired women that drool on him in between drinks, literally tosses out dirty bartenders and knocks out petulant customers, and probably cleans the bathrooms stalls hourly with his own ever luxuriant locks. He is forever poised, unshakable, Wyatt Earp with a doctorate, and he even brushes his teeth with a powerfully abiding sense of harminiousness.
When in doubt he calls upon Wade Garret (acting dynamo Sam Elliot), his mentor and the former A#1 Wandering Bouncer, while also seeking tenderness and stand-up sex with Doc (the dual-expressional Kelly Lynch), who happens to be, yup, the town doctor, while simultaneously waging war with criminal kingpin Brad Wesley (melting method man Ben Gazzara). (The screenwriters have subtly tagged everyone with cowpoke handles.) The town is an Edward Hopper painting made up of a car dealership, a general store, the bar, no visible police presence, a lake, and, shades of Samuel Beckett, two houses sitting across it and in full view of each other, the metaphoric ranches of the avenging Dalton and the villainous (and oldie-singing) Wesley.
No fervently rotten movie comes up without eminently quotable dialogue, and Road House is awash in pearly cinematic wisdoms:
“I want you to be nice until it’s time not to be nice.”
“That dog won’t hunt”
“Pain don’t hurt”
“Nobody wins a fight”
“I don’t fly…too dangerous”
“It’s my way or the highway”
“That gal has entirely too many brains to have an ass like that”
There’s absolutely nothing funny about pancreatic cancer, and I just have to believe that neither Johnny Castle or Sam Wheat, or even the Bodhi would approve of movie buffs either laughing or crying about the early passing of La Swayze. Do a Dalton instead, steering steely into the home screen, the later at night the better, the fiercer the gaze, the more controlled the movement, the sharper the mind, the better, and slip full away into another viewing of the immortal Road House, so very bad that it almost transcends itself. RIP Patrick Swayze, 1952-2009.