In Road House, Patrick Swayze plays Dalton, the world’s greatest “cooler” (that’s a bouncer to me and you) who is sent to work at the Double Deuce, a Texas bar so prone to bar fights and carnage that the house band has to play behind wire mesh every night. It doesn’t take long for Dalton to whip things into shape with his Ken-doll physique and zippy zen one-liners like “Pain don’t hurt.” Things take a sinister turn when he attracts the attention of both Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), a local tycoon who has the town under rule and thumb, and Doc (Kelly Lynch) a sexy spectacled doctor who Wesley holds a candle for. Needless to say, things get messy.
Road House is one of those movies that has lived on way past its sell-by date. It’s a film so hilariously 80s that it’s difficult to take seriously, which is kind of the point. Producer Joel Silver continued his penchant for glossed-up high concepts and “what if?” genre hybrids by smashing together western archetypes with the iconography of Texas barrooms. I wouldn’t be surprised if this script was originally written as a traditional western before Silver blew the dust off it and gave it a rework. The film prefigures a lot of trends that would dominate the next decade too. Made on the cusp of the Van Damme/Seagal takeover of the 90s, Swayze’s Dalton feels like a self-aware send up of that persona long before it was branded and packaged. The camp excess of the 80s remains on full display though, with its flurry of inconsequential violence and smoky soft-core nudity. The film takes two memorable detours, one to show a monster truck demolishing a Mercedes showroom and the other to showcase the stripping talents of the sultry Julie Michaels (who would go on to be a prominent Hollywood stunt performer, funnily enough). There are plenty of other little asides and odd moments like these that make up Road House‘s DNA. The colourful supporting cast is great too. Especially Sam Elliott as the world’s second greatest cooler and Gazzara, who appears to be playing a distant relative of The Big Lebowski‘s Jackie Treehorn. Musician Jeff Healey plays Cody, the blind front man of the Double Deuce’s house band, and songwriter Red West shows up too to add some extra flavour. In fact, the film’s weakest link is its leading lady Kelly Lynch, who struggles to come across as anything other than a hardbody with a PhD. It’s not her fault though, few actresses could make much out of the part she’s dealt.
It’s all gorgeously shot with neon-tinged anamorphic lenses by John Carpenter BFF Dean Cundey, who ensures Swayze is never anything less than a smouldering pumped muscle. Director Rowdy Herrington (who sounds like a character in his own movie) sexualizes the shit out of his leading man, making full use of the star’s newly crowned sex-symbol status following Dirty Dancing. Both Lynch and Michaels might give him a run for his money in the exposed-flesh department, but Dalton is the film’s one true pin-up. Not many people make a mullet with turtle neck and parachute pants work but goddamn, Swayze makes it look like a long lost art form.
It’s difficult to dislike a movie like Road House. Pretty much everyone I’ve come across who encountered it in their teenage years seems to adore this flick. It’s not hard to see why. The film has become a staple of the VHS generation due to it’s so-bad-its-good appeal. A tonal mess from beginning to end, there are times when you wonder what kind of movie it was intended to be. Action movie? Comedy? Farce? Beats me. You’ve only got to flip over the DVD to get an idea of how far it’s fandom travels. If you’re so inclined, you can watch the movie complete with audio commentary from super-fans Kevin Smith and producer Scott Mosier. It’s a total numbskull movie, but a deliriously fun one at that.
Which brings us to Interrogation, a film the word “fun” will never describe. Shot in 1982 but banned until 1989, Ryszard Bugajski’s button-pushing drama follows cabaret singer Tonia (Kyrstyna Janda) who is suddenly arrested in post-WWII Poland and submitted to years of abusive interrogation methods. Featuring a powerhouse Cannes-award-winning lead performance, timeless direction, political themes and punishing sequences of humiliation and torment, this is everything Road House ain’t.
Fans of Lars von Trier’s Golden Heart trilogy will probably get a big kick out of Interrogation. Tonia is one of those movie heroines subjected to so much horror that she becomes a true hero in the process. Unlike Swayze’s Dalton, Tonia feels like a character rooted in reality capable of weakness and genuine human emotion. We see her at her glamorous best and at her snotty, degraded worst. She begs for death and mercy, yet neither come. Somehow she continues to prevail. She fights against her captors and refuses to have her humanity stripped away. Janda’s staggering performance anchors the movie with a strength and stamina that dates all the way back to Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. It feels big and important, a real showstopper.
Perhaps afraid of the endurance it might inspire, Interrogation was banned by the Polish government for its anti-communist themes and was not given a wide release for seven years. The film was widely circulated on illegal VHS copies however, many of which Bugajski secretly helped distribute himself, and, like Road House, this is where the film’s cult status was born. I hadn’t heard of the film until the opportunity to write this article came my way and I’m surprised that it isn’t more widely known. It’s an extremely well-made piece of work, albeit a grueling and desaturated one. Perhaps its bleak outlook and “important” sensibilities have made it quite boring in the long run. Out of all the films made in 1989 to pair with Road House this might just be the least likely candidate, which strangely makes it the perfect double feature. But there can be only one victor.
Picking a winner between Interrogation and Road House can’t come down to quality and craftsmanship alone – Interrogation would surely walk away unmatched – these are completely opposing pieces of cinema each confidently representing different corners of art and trash, respectively. You have to consider the pleasures of both movies and which one will be more rewarding as the years tick by. Interrogation is certainly a piercing and memorable watch, elegantly prepared and rebelliously delivered. On the surface, it looks as good as any dish prepared by Hannibal Lecter. But like a trademark Lecter dish, it asks you to take hearty bites of human flesh, reducing the soulful ingredients to little more than digested lumps of bleeding pulp. Janda’s work on Interrogation is startling, and her on-screen martyrdom a real triumph. But sometimes you just can’t beat the taste of a good old cheeseburger.
Already I can feel myself itching to watch Road House again. It’s a real conversation starter and mad-ride through everything that’s both terrible and amazing about studio filmmaking in the 1980s. So the winner of this round-one match, with a big old roundhouse kick to the face is… Road House.
The winner: Road House
While Interrogation is out of print, copies are still available to buy here and there, and your local video store likely has a copy in their “Poland” section. Meanwhile, Road House is still very much in print, available to buy or rent on Amazon or iTunes or through your local video store. -Ed.
Interrogation; directed by Ryszard Bugakski; written by Janusz Dymek and Ryszard Bugajski; starring Krystyna Janda, Adam Ferency, Janusz Gajos, Agnieszka Holland, and Anna Romantowska; 118 minutes.
Road House; directed by Rowdy Harrington; written by David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin; starring Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch, Sam Elliott, and Ben Gazzara; 114 minutes