Patrick Swayze: The Best Cooler in the Business

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 15 2009 3:18 AM

Patrick Swayze: The Best Cooler in the Business

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 .

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Advertisement


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.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The Supreme Court, Throughout Its History, Has Been a Massive Disappointment

Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister

Damned Spot

Now Stare. Don’t Stop.

The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 5:19 PM Social Outcasts Republican candidates are retreating from debates on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception.
  Business
Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
  Life
Education
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 4:45 PM Steven Soderbergh Is Doing Some Next-Level Work on The Knick
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 4:59 PM China’s Not the Problem With Carbon Emissions. We Are.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.