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MOVIE REVIEW : Taste Takes a Detour in 'Road House'

May 19, 1989|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

In "Road House" (citywide Friday), 1989's comic high point so far, Patrick Swayze plays Dalton, a man at the Zen peak of his profession. In the world of power drinkers, Dalton's single, ringing name is legendary. He's a numero uno "cooler," a saloon bouncer.

He's also a graduate in philosophy from NYU, a fan of the novels of Jim Harrison, the owner of a 560 Mercedes-Benz and a man with a whole lotta pain behind those steely eyes.

In a trade heavy with built-in hazards, Dalton travels with a medical road map of his injuries: the precise placement of the steel pins, cross-hatched scars and undetonated land mines he has picked up.

Called in to shape up the Double Deuce, a decrepit Missouri roadhouse, Dalton already suffers from a nasty knife slash, which lands him at the town's emergency hospital. Shirtless, he poses, arm up behind his head, so that the audience can't help but notice his resemblance, torso-wise, to Michelangelo's David. Also, so this beautiful, sensitive doctor (Kelly Lynch) can close the wound with her medical staple gun. He may need a local anesthetic, she warns. "Pain don't hurt," he reassures her confidently.

Not the way stupidity does. And the crushing assault that "Road House" delivers to fun at the movies is enough to send you crawling out of the theater on hands and knees, bloody and bowed.

First, there is the dreadful compendium script by David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin, who already has Whoopi Goldberg's "Fatal Beauty" and "Lost Angels" on her rap sheet. In this story of consummate evil (sleekly villainous town boss Ben Gazzara) pitted against blow-dried, Tefloned good, the dialogue wavers from countrified quaint to hyper-macho, without a single believable moment on its way. It's a screenplay with a dozen antecedents, from the hallowed Western to martial-arts sagas to those '50s movies where one man with his shirt off wreaks havoc in a steamy Southern town. The writers have added a soupcon of Stallone, a pinch of Chuck Norris and a few "Mississippi Burning" fire-bombings for effect.

Most to be pitied among the actors is Sam Elliott, playing Dalton's grizzled best friend and mentor. Elliott is a man of genuine authority, lending his wry and indelible presence to goings-on that are simply not in his league. Swayze genuinely doesn't seem to know the trouble he is in, and Gazzara is too busy smirking at his own villainy. Besides, he is allowed to sing .

Then there's the thudding direction by Rowdy Herrington, known previously as the writer-director of "Jack's Back." Melodramatic at best, Herrington is in his element in fight scenes, and out of it the rest of the time. At first that doesn't much matter, since two-thirds of "Road House" is fights or explosions, or men howling, "Waaallll, (blank) you," at one another. "Road House" probably has more (blanks), pound for pound, less inventively employed, than "Platoon."

But it's supposed to have more delicate moments, too, as the doctor shows up at Dalton's place for staple inventory and to murmur admiringly, "You live some kinda life, Dalton . . . ." Here, a light touch might have helped, a sense of humor, a bit of irony. Nada.

Obviously, the hope is that the presence of Swayze will bring the "Dirty Dancing" crowd running. Unfortunately, these film makers, including producer Joel Silver, have no clue what made "Dirty Dancing" the hit that it was; they seem to believe it was the dirty half. Consequently, if they slavishly copy the lighting and even the setting from the first Swayze hit, and this time have Swayze and the lady in question fill in the gaps that "Dirty Dancing" left to our imagination, it would presumably be enough to send audiences into a ticket-buying frenzy.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Fourteen-year-olds could have told them that. It wasn't sex that "Dirty Dancing" delivered, it was romance. But in deep "Road House" country, with (blank) on everyone's lips, (it's MPAA-rated R for language and violence) and the undefined made crassly visible, there isn't a whiff of romance anywhere, any more than there's a single jot of common sense.

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