Posted Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009, at 3:18 AM
In the wake of Patrick Swayze’s death of pancreatic cancer at age 57, there'll be a lot of talk about the romantic leading men he played in his two biggest hits, Dirty Dancing and Ghost : rescuing Baby from that ignominious corner or spooning Demi Moore at the pottery wheel .
But I'll remember Road House ( 1989) and Point Break (1991), two proudly terrible B-movies that showcased Swayze’s unique combination of masculine swagger and gracile elegance. "I thought you’d be bigger," everyone keeps telling Swayze’s character in Roadhouse , and the running joke is on the audience as well—for a man that good at breaking heads and hearts, Swayze’s build was surprisingly slender and delicate. (Before becoming an actor, he was headed for a career as a ballet dancer.)
In Road House , Swayze plays Dalton, a philosophy-grad-turned-nightclub bouncer (or "cooler") who defends a bar in small-town Missouri from a band of local gangsters led by Ben Gazzara. In one scene, Dalton introduces himself to the bar’s rowdy security staff with preternatural calm and Zen restraint, invoking the three precepts of nightclub security: "Never underestimate your opponent, take it outside, and be nice until it’s time not to be nice." Dalton’s martial-arts influenced fighting style and serenely mystical mien are what set him apart from the sweaty, hulking rubes of Roadhouse— men who, in Dalton’s memorable words, are " too stupid to have a good time ." For all its monster trucks and bar brawls, Roadhouse functions surprisingly well as a critique of knuckledragging masculinity. By the standards of the Double Deuce roadhouse (and of most action-movie audiences in 1989), Dalton is a sexually ambiguous figure, an effete import from the city whose philosophy degree only makes him stronger: a death-dealing sissy. He’s nice until it’s time not to be nice. His archenemy Jimmy (Marshall R. Teague) grabs him in a headlock, sneering , "I used to fuck guys like you in prison." But it’s Dalton, the implied bottom, who will come out on top in the climactic fight.
In Point Break , Swayze’s character, a surfing bankrobber who's a guru to Keanu Reeves’ FBI agent Johnny Utah, is named Bodhi (short for Bodhisattva). As was the case with Dalton, Bodhi’s existence on a higher spiritual plane cohabits unproblematically with his ability to kick ass and take names. "In six seconds we’re going to be meat waffles," Bodhi announces cheerily to Johnny as they prepare to jump out of a plane. "Adios, amigo!" And in the final scene, as Bodhi, cornered at last by the FBI, chooses to sacrifice himself to the ultimate, unsurfable wave rather than submit to the law, Swayze’s purity of purpose has a deranged grandeur. Swayze was a student of Buddhism in real life, and his flair for playing this kind of camp action hero (the surfing criminal mastermind, the bouncer with a Ph.D.) has something Buddhist about it. Far from slumming, he seemed to throw himself into his most absurd roles with a surplus measure of joy. Swayze’s character in Road House surprised everyone with his slight stature. They thought he’d be bigger. But Patrick Swayze was just the opposite: He was bigger than we thought.