Monday, May 25, 2015

Road House & Point Break

When I saw the double feature on the Castro Theater calendar, I knew I wanted to go.  It would only be other commitments which could keep me away.  The stars aligned and I was able to see Road House & Point Break at the Castro on May 21.

I was surprised that Road House & Point Break wasn't a Midnites for Maniacs show.  Speaking of which, the Maniac has announced his next show at the Castro.  On June 12, he will show two of John Cusack's best films:  Say Anything & High Fidelity.

Road House starring Patrick Swayze, Ben Gazzara & Kelly Lynch; directed by Rowdy Herrington; (1989)
Point Break starring Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Lori Petty & Gary Busey; directed by Kathryn Bigelow; (1991)

I have seen both of these films countless times on television but I wanted to see them in the theater.  I suspected that watching them on TV was a inferior experience compared to the big screen.  I was right.

Many people I know have guilty pleasures when it comes to their film watching.  Some hide their preferences; others wear their genre fetish proudly.  For many, this means a love of horror films which is easy to satisfy now - zombies, vampires, torture porn, etc.  Those things bore me.  Some guys like rom-coms which I can take or leave.

For me, I secretly like action films but when I say that, I should say I like the action films from my youth.  The ones today bore me.  I mentioned I was a big fan of The Rock.   Among other films of the era which I occasionally have a hard time owning up to are Road House, Point Break, Die Hard, Predator, The Terminator, Escape From New York, The Warriors, Lethal Weapon, etc.  These films don't play the art house/rep house theaters too often so I was forced to enjoy them in the privacy of my home (thank you TNT and Spike TV).  As they say, everything old is new again.  I think it is time to see a wave of 80s and 90s action films get the retrospective treatment.

Road House is a ridiculous film.  Patrrick Swayze plays Dalton, a legendary "cooler" which is a head bouncer at a bar.  He is recruited to the Double Deuce Bar in Jasper (outside of Kansas City).  Dalton appears to practice tai chi, approaches his job with a Zen like philosophy, smokes cigarettes, fights in a style which looks like MMA, has a degree in philosophy and makes $500 per night in 1989!

The Double Deuce is a real piece of work.  If no one dies, it's considered a good night.  Dalton sets about cleaning the Double Deuce but runs afoul with the local kingpin Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara).  To make matters even worse, Dalton starts dating the Dr. Clay (Kelly Lynch) who used to date Wesley.

Wesley begins a war with Dalton & his allies in town.  It's partly out of jealousy but also to assert his control of the town that Wesley begins an increasingly violent campaign of harassment.  My favorite moment is when Wesley orders one of his goons to get into his monster truck and drove over the new cars in a dealership to teach the recalcitrant dealer a lesson.

Road House was rated R which makes me wonder who the original target audience was.  I was looking for differences between the film and the television broadcasts I have seen.  There is a low level but definite homoerotic overtone to some of the scenes.  There is one scene in particular where Dalton fights to the death with Wesley's toughest henchman (Marshall Teague).  Swayze is shirtless and wearing what looks suspiciously like yoga pants.  Teague is decked out in denim and looks like he came to Jasper straight from hustling on Times Square.  In the middle of the fight, Teague spits out this glorious piece of dialogue:  "I used to fuck guys like you in prison."

I noticed more in the film which is censored from broadcast television.  On their second date, Dalton & the good doctor consummate their relationship.  The doctor is not wearing any underwear & Dalton seems to routinely go commando style.  Wesley probably controls the undergarment racket in town.

Speaking of rackets, how does Wesley get so rich in a podunk town?  He actually brags to Dalton that he has the 7-Eleven franchise and maybe...just maybe...JC Penney is coming to town next year.  Wesley gets 10% of all the business gross in town which probably adds up to hundreds of dollars per month.  Gazzara seems to know he is in the realm of the ridiculousness.  There is an edge to his performance  that suggests he knows that the film is in a state of altered reality.  I saw it in his performances in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie & Buffalo '66 but he uses it to greater effect in Road House because he is the villain.

Swayze plays Dalton straight.  In fact, Swayze swings for the fences as if he was trying to get an Oscar nomination.  He modulates his voice, stares people down, earnestly espouses his philosophies on life and work.  Lynch doesn't show much range but it doesn't really detract from the film.  The only actor who seems to be having a good time is Sam Elliott as Dalton's mentor.  Hands down, the most interesting performance is that of Kevin Tighe as the owner of the Double Deuce.  It appears he was given directions to play the character as if it were a Peter Lorre role.  He comes off as suspicious and vaguely like a child molester.  I say that because I saw him in an episode of Law and Order SVU (the one titled Avatar) and he gave a performance that reminded me a lot of his turn in Road House.

"It's so bad it's good."  I hear that a lot and typically it is so bad that it is bad but for me Road House is the quintessential "it's so bad it's good" movie.  When I was not laughing at inappropriate junctures, I was drawn to the characters and story.

Obviously, the common thread between Road House and Point Break is Patrick Swayze.  However, another actor appeared in both films.  Julie Michaels appears as Denise in Road House.  If you don't remember who Denise is, she is the woman who gets up and does a strip tease at the Double Deuce.  Her exact situation is unclear.  She seems to live at Wesley's house.  Wesley (or his henchmen) seem to beat her up.  Whatever she is to Wesley, he encourages her to do her strip tease to tempt Dalton away from the doctor.  I think she only has one line of dialogue in the film and frankly, her strip tease seems a bit clumsy.

Looking at Michaels' filmography, she has more credits for stunts than acting.  She combines the fight choreography and acting in Point Break.  In a memorable sequence Keanu Reeves and his FBI colleagues raid a house full of meth cooking surf nazis.  A blonde woman is in the shower.  We know this because we can see her silhouette.  When the shooting starts, she becomes a scream queen but at the first opportunity, she starts kicking Keanu's ass...while she is still naked.  Can't blame her; when the bullets fly, you don't have time to put on your clothes.  Her character's name is credited as "Freight Train" although I don't recall her being addressed by that name during the film.

Point Break is definitely a step up from Road House for several reasons.  With all due respect to Rowdy Harrington, he hasn't had the career Kathryn Bigelow has had.  Bigelow seems to understand what makes guys with adrenaline addictions tick and the price they have to pay.  She has shown this is The Hurt Locker, Strange Days and even Zero Dark Thirty where it can be argued that Jessica Chastain's character is forced to adopt the hypermasculine persona of her colleagues.

In Point Break, Swayze plays Bodhi as a sort of disillusioned Dalton who has turned to a life of crime.  Bodhi is the leader of a gang of bank robbers who are given the sobriquet of "The Ex-Presidents."  They wear rubber masks when they rob the banks - Reagan, Nixon, Carter & LBJ.  Bodhi espouses a Zen like philosophy towards surfing and life.  By the way, in real life Swayze was a Buddhist and practiced Transcendental Meditation which is probably why those qualities come through so strongly in some of his characters.

On the trail of Bodhi is the new hot shot FBI academy graduate Johnny Utah (Reeves).  First that is a great name.  I read the writers chose the name  because they were trying to evoke a combination John Unitas and Joe Montana.  Utah played QB at Ohio State.  You would think that would disqualify him from undercover work but this is the movies.  Utah's partner is Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey).  He convinces Utah that the Ex-Presidents are surfers so Utah goes undercover to infiltrate the subculture.  He lies to a female surfer (Lori Petty) to ingratiate himself among the surfing crowd.

After a false start with the aforementioned surf nazis, Utah begins gathering evidence that Bodhi and his surfer buds are the Ex-Presidents.  Following a hellacious chase scene between Utah & Bodhi (always wearing the mask), the fun really starts.  Bodhi introduces Utah to skydiving, kidnaps his girlfriend and forces him to participate in a bank robbery where one of the Ex-Presidents and an off-duty police officer are killed.  This leads to the film's pièce de résistance.  Stuck in an airborne plane without a parachute, Utah jumps out of the aircraft and catches up to Bodhi in mid air.

Bigelow gets some terrific surfing and skydiving footage to give Point Break some extra oomph.  Swayze's hippy-dippy affirmations aren't quite so ridiculous when surfer guru Bodhi says them as opposed to when bar bouncer guru Dalton says them.  Also, watching the two films back-to-back, I notice that Swayze is frequently eclipsed by Gazzara's performance which is arguably the most ostentatious part of Road House.  In contrast, Swayze's Bodhi is clearly more charismatic than Reeves' inscrutable performance as Johnny Utah.  Point Break is a case where you like the villain better than the hero.  In fact, it is only until Bodhi is harassed by Utah that he loses his composure.

By my count, Bigelow hits a home run with three action sequences in the film - the raid on the surf nazis house, the first skydiving sequence which gets great overhead shots of Lake Powell & the aforementioned skydiving sequence which had me wondering how they pulled off that stunt.  If you throw in the surfing scenes, the tense foot chase and bank robbery scenes, Point Break strings together a number of thrilling sequences to make a solid action film.  Johnny Utah's character motivation & screen presence are weak but Swayze & Gary Busey make up for it by commanding the audience's attention when they are on screen.

Enjoy Point Break while you can because they are remaking the film.  When the film comes out, you can never watch the original on TV again.  I've seen it happen with the inferior remakes of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three & The Longest Yard.  I never thought I would be nostalgic for Point Break.

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