Welcome back to “Original Outlaws,” a column that seeks to canonize cinema’s greatest works of exploitation. Think of it as the Criterion Collection of skeeze and sleaze: a discovery portal for those looking to dive into the deep end of disreputable filmmaking.
Spine Number Five in this rough and tumble anthology is genre workman Rowdy Herrington’s over-the-top saloon slugfest, Road House (1989) …
Rowdy Herrington’s directorial career was born in a bar, so it only makes sense that his best picture would revolve around an untamed watering hole.
Following graduation from Penn State University, Rowdy returned home to Pittsburgh and got a job at the legendary station WQED (where Fred Rogers invented everybody’s favorite neighborhood). Working his way up as a gaffer, Herrington could initially only get part-time hours at the public access portal. So, he had to take on an additional gig at a Homestead steel mill, where his foreman was cool enough to schedule the aspiring artist’s shifts around his early set call times.
Following a round of late 1970s layoffs at WQED, Herrington visited his Secret Service agent brother in Washington, D.C., and ended up getting hired onto educational pictures such as Benjamin Banneker: The Man Who Loved the Stars (1979), which showcased Ossie Davis as the titular astronomic mathematician. Surrounded by folks who had gigged on big movies, Rowdy sought advice as to how he could continue obtaining jobs doing what he loved. What he was met with was the usual canned industry wisdom: Head to either New York or Los Angeles, because that’s where the work is. Not being a huge fan of the Big Apple, Herrington packed his bags and migrated West.
Rowdy’s first California crew spot was as an electrician on a non-union kung-fu movie, and from there he worked on lo-fi exploitation sets (1979’s H.O.T.S., 1980’s Humanoids From the Deep), legendary genre works (1984’s Repo Man, 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street), and became the stage manager for half a season of Growing Pains (1985–1986). Meanwhile, he penned scripts, a few of which he optioned to keep his head above water. To put it bluntly: Rowdy Herrington became a Hollywood worker bee, applying all the trade knowledge he had amassed to keep a roof over his head.
Smash cut to a California dive, nearly a decade later: Herrington’s just gotten off work, gaffing the truly terrible George R.R. Martin sci-fi/horror adaptation, Nightflyers (1987). Bullshitting over beers with fellow crewman Tim Moore, Herrington pitched his idea for a serial killer thriller, in which a series of slayings mirroring Jack the Ripper’s London reign of terror begin plaguing Los Angeles on the 100th anniversary of the original crimes. His buddy’s taken with the ghastly barstool horror story, and a few months later, while Miller’s out in Hawaii working with producer Elliott Kastner, Herrington sends him the finished script.
The front page reads: “One hundred years ago in the city of London, a man shocked the world by murdering, raping and mutilating five women. He was never caught.” Flip the page and there’s the striking title: Jack’s Back (1989). Kastner advised the duo to make the movie for under a million, and Miller signed on as a producer, raising funds with Kastner’s stepson, Cassian “Brother of Cary” Elwes*, for what would become Rowdy’s debut behind the camera.
Jack’s Back is a late-night cable marvel, as James Spader plays twins (one good, one bad, naturally) who unfortunately find themselves in the murderous path of the bloodthirsty copycat. Brought to life with a keen eye for garish fun, Rowdy delivers brutal violence, bumbling goofy cops, psychic visions, ladies in lingerie, wailing saxophones, icy synths, foggy “LA after dark “cinematography, and a preposterous main character switcheroo, all with a straight face. It’s an unpretentious airport paperback brought to vivid life, as you feel like Herrington was daydreaming about making this movie the entire time he was climbing the production ladder.
Jack’s Back caught the attention of budding super producer Joel Silver, who was practically re-modeling the 1980s action movie with hyperviolent high-concept pictures such as Commando (1985), Lethal Weapon (1987), Predator (1987), and Die Hard (1988). Silver already had Patrick Swayze — the hunky breakout bad boy from Dirty Dancing (1987)** — attached to star in a script titled Road House (1989), written by David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin. But Herrington didn’t really like the screenplay, thinking it too cartoonish and silly, an over the top lark that was basically a Western set in the world of redneck bar bouncing. As the legend goes, Silver summoned Rowdy to a midnight meeting and begged him to make the movie, and Herrington agreed, but knew in his heart the only way to make it work was to lean into the story’s Zen anarchy.
Now, before we get into the nitty-gritty of Rowdy’s testosterone-fueled masterwork, let’s first get something out of the way: There’s a sizable contingent who consider Road House some sort of “so bad it’s good” staple, and this writer’s here to tell those irony-obsessed jag-offs that they can all go fuck off back to their plates of master pancakes***. Road House plays like Budd Boetticher bought a ticket to the Kansas City Monster Jam and came back wholly inspired, ready to whip an entire subculture into shape with a new man of action: smooth tai chi “cooler,” Dalton (Swayze). The collected ass-kicker’s latest off-the-interstate kingdom? The Double Deuce, or the unruliest saloon you’ve always been scared to hang out in (but deep in your heart, always wanted to saddle up to). However, the Deuce’s days of outlaw indigence are come to an end. There’s a new sheriff in town, and if you step out of line, you will be dealt with by his men in the matching red polo shirts.
Herrington crafts a sticky microcosm where danger lurks at every table and the honky-tonk house band drowns out the sounds of nightly fisticuffs. The types of joints Dalton works in are places where “the eyeballs are swept up after closing” — at least, that’s how Double Deuce proprietor Tilghman (Kevin Tighe) describes the oasis when he comes to recruit the now-mythical security chief.
And why wouldn’t Dalton want to come in and clean a new house? It’s a challenge for this tested gunslinger, a destination for his three guiding principles, the last being the most critical. “Be nice” he tells the remaining Double Deuce staff at their first meeting, eliciting a somewhat baffled response. Yet that’s possibly the most remarkable element of Swayze’s career-best performance (sorry, Bodhi): his steadfast professionalism and commitment to the hospitality portion of the hospitality industry. Dalton genuinely loves his job and has become an impeccable manager of people because of that irrepressible pride in his chosen trade. “I thought you’d be bigger” everyone says to him, the recurring gag perhaps inspiring legendary critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s hard #diss of the film, referring to it in his review as “Walking Short.” But the joke only acts to highlight the simple fact that Dalton only has to be as big as the situation calls for, because he inspires not only awe, but confidence in the people who work with him.
Every great Western requires an evil baron, and Ben Gazzara’s Brad Wesley undoubtedly fits the bill. Gazzara molds Wesley into a demented, funhouse mirror reflection of J.R. Ewing, owning half the farm town in which the Double Deuce resides, and unafraid to cut some bacon off his subjects’ backs if they don’t come up with his monthly “community enrichment” payments. Gazzarra is absolutely having a ball, chewing scenery as he bitch-slaps monster truck-driving henchmen and runs Dalton off the road while humming along to the radio. We get the sense that he may be the only powerful asshole who has ever rattled the cooler’s cage, forcing him to call in reinforcements: the best in the business and his equally enigmatic mentor, Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott).
Ah, Sam Elliott: a true gift to mankind. While Wade is missing the performer’s trademark ‘stache, all the grit, grizzle and gravel in Elliott’s voice remains. For Dalton, Wade is more than just a guy who taught him how to handle hardcore drinkers who get out of hand. No, Wade is more like a father than anything else, rolling his eyes once he learns that his mijo has fallen head over heels for a gorgeous local doctor (Kelly Lynch), but also understanding that she’s just what he needs. Elliott is downright transcendent in Road House: a cowboy without spurs (or sleeves, for that matter) who can sing an entire horseback ballad with a single grunt or illustrate a campfire tale via a quick run of his hand through a mane of silver hair. Nobody will ever be this cool ever again.
Speaking of legends, Dean Cundey will forever possess one of the most fascinating CVs in the history of the moving image. For every Halloween (1978) or Jurassic Park (1993) on the cinematographer’s resume, it seems that there’s a Flubber (1997) or Garfield (’04) to match. Like Herrington, he’s a worker, taking whatever job is available and handling himself like a professional. With Road House, Cundey’s widescreen lens relishes the smoky, hazy neon of these gladiatorial bar brawls, before bringing a golden-lit romanticism to the scenes with Dalton and Doc. It’s an absolutely gorgeous film, photographed with a care that doesn’t quite fit its often-juvenile tone; it’s just another discordant creative decision that renders Road House so dang peculiar.
The hearty sense of maximalism Herrington embraces only grows as the picture charges on. Monster trucks are driven through car dealerships, smashing every used Ford in their path. Wailing on the guitar is Actually Blind blues guitarist Jeff Healy, whose band shreds their way out from behind the chicken wire to become some of the very best characters in the whole movie. There’s a unity to the madness that makes it mesmerizing, achieving a near unimaginable crest of shitkicker wish fulfillment during the homoerotic, throat-ripping, car-flipping finale. Because sometimes movies are just fucking awesome, and Road House is one of those grand examples of ecstatic action-movie truth.
Rowdy Herrington never again achieved the same level of spectacle as he did with Road House. His undervalued Cuba Gooding Jr. underground boxing programmer Gladiator (1992) gave way to his inevitable return to Pittsburgh, with the idiosyncratic Bruce Willis serial killer thriller Striking Distance (1993). After that, it was all low-budget shelf-stuffers, reuniting Rowdy with James Spader twice (The Stickup in 2002 and I Witness in 2003), though neither captured the same vivid pulp of Jack’s Back. For the last 15 years, Herrington’s been enjoying retirement from filmmaking, a too-little-talked-about relic from a bygone era.
Still, we’ll always have Road House. When Swayze died in 2009, Dalton became a rather sizable piece of his legacy’s puzzle. In recent years, we have witnessed a boom of aging action stars (Stallone, Van Damme, Gibson) reclaiming their tough-guy images via screen resurrections, and it’s tough not to wonder how Dalton could have returned in the modern DTV era via a revisit to the Double Deuce****. Were it a perfect world, Herrington would have saddled up for one last ride alongside history’s greatest cooler, reminding us all to “be nice” — or risk taking a header through the door as punishment for forgetting our manners.
*Elwes has quite the odd producing career, including everything from the cheapie slasher Psycho Cop (1989) to the Academy Award darling Dallas Buyer’s Club (’13), which netted both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto golden statues for the performances.
**Not to mention Francis Ford Coppola’s greaser street gang opus, The Outsiders (1983), and John Milius’ controversial right-wing fantasy, Red Dawn (1984).
***Though, in fairness, there are also folks like Sean T. Collins, who spent an ENTIRE YEAR writing an essay about Road House a day.
****If you’re thinking about bringing up the movie’s actual sequel, Road House 2: Last Call (’06), save your fucking breath, mijo.
Jacob Knight is a film writer based in Austin, Texas whose work has appeared in several publications and who has spent more time watching action and exploitation movies than any human being probably should.