1989’s Road House is an action movie in which Patrick Swayze plays a bouncer named Dalton who kicks ass. It’s not Swayze’s first starring role in an action movie (that would be 1984’s Red Dawn), nor his most commercially successful (that would be 1991’s Point Break), but I think it’s his most fascinating action hero role. Despite its schlocky “movies you watch on basic cable at 2:00 PM while folding laundry” reputation, Road House is a movie rich in symbolism, especially when it comes to Swayze’s Dalton. Dalton doesn’t just roundhouse kick dudes in the head, he has a deep rich inner life. You can tell because he also holds a PhD, does tai chi on his lawn, and drinks coffee while smiting his enemies.
While much of the substance of Road House consists of bar fights, car crashes, and explosions, the thing that separates it from other silly and disposable ’80s action fare is the way director Rowdy Harrington builds his cinematic reality by showing us something and letting us as the audience fill in the details. We know that the Double Deuce where Dalton works has potential as an entertaining southern road house because the in-house entertainment is provided by a blind blues guitarist (played by the great Jeff Healy), evoking the legacy of great blind southern rhythm & blues players like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ray Charles. We know that the bouncer working at the Double Deuce when Dalton arrives is a hothead and a brawler because he’s played by notable pro wrestling hotheaded brawler Terry Funk. We know that bad guy Brad Wesley is out of touch with the down home atmosphere of rural Missouri in which it is set because Wesley is played by New York theater legend Ben Gazzara wearing an ascot. The film is a masterclass in the ultimate rule of filmmaking: “show, don’t tell,” and lets us know who the characters are by showing us the beverages they drink.
Being a story about a bar, Road House heavily features folks consuming alcohol. The vast majority of the bar’s patrons—be they troublemaking shitkickers or affable citizens looking for a good time—are drinking American lager beer. Everything we need to know about most of these characters comes down to whether they’re peacefully drinking their beer or throwing the bottles at each other. Bad guy Brad Wesley’s girlfriend Denise is introduced as she orders a vodka on the rocks, both insinuating that she’s a touch classier than her fellow barflies and also a harder partier. Brad Wesley himself is shown in an early scene drinking a bloody mary in the middle of the workday, showing us that he’s a man of leisure at best, and a layabout cad at the worst. But Swayze’s Dalton doesn’t drink booze of any kind.
When we see him with a beverage, we see him with a mug of coffee.
Dalton is an intellectual and a professional. Since coffee spread through the Ottoman Empire and Europe in the 16th century when coffee houses were known as “Penny Universities” for the quality of academic discussion that occurred in their walls, coffee has been known as a beverage of intellectuals. So before we even see Dalton talking about his PhD in Philosophy from Columbia University and see him reading modern American poets for leisure, we know he’s an intellectual because he drinks coffee. Since coffee became a necessary pick-me-up during the Industrial Revolution it has been a beverage of labor. So before we see Dalton keep his cool as his adversaries try to get a rise out of him, we know that he’s a professional, because we see him drink coffee. We’re eventually told that Dalton is an intellectual and a professional, but because we see him drinking coffee at the bar we’ve already been shown this before we’re told it.
In the strange world of Road House where there are famous itinerant bouncers going from town to town cleaning up rowdy bars and earning neurosurgeon-level salaries for doing so, one might expect that the movie would focus on the exploits of the most famous itinerant bouncer, but we don’t. Dalton is the second most famous itinerant bouncer. The most famous is Dalton’s friend and mentor Wade Garrett (played by Sam Elliott). When Wade is introduced, he is not drinking coffee as his protegé Dalton does, but a longneck bottle of American lager beer. Where Dalton exists in a state apart from the barflies at the Double Deuce by staying sober and alert with his black coffee, Wade exists alongside the patrons of his bar by drinking the same drink. By showing him drinking the same beer as the bar patrons, Rowdy Harrington is showing us that Wade might not be as bright or as professional as Dalton, foreshadowing his eventual death at the hands of Brad Wesley’s goons.
The one time we see Dalton consume a beverage other than coffee anticipates the one time we see him lose his cool. After his buddy Wade comes into town, Dalton, his girlfriend Dr. Elizabeth “Doc” Clay, and Wade have an all-night throuple date where they compare battle scars, dance to the jukebox, and throw back a few beers. It is the first time we see Dalton drink something other than coffee (including on his dates with Doc), and immediately after it is when the film’s final act begins, where Dalton starts flipping out and killing people. Are we meant to believe that without a steady infusion of Coffea arabica that Dalton was a hair trigger away from murderous vengeance? Probably not. The murder of his best friend is much more of an inciting incident, but every time I watch Road House I have to wonder: would Dalton have acted as rashly as he did in the final act had he stuck to coffee?
When Dalton first arrives at the Double Deuce—a place where we’re told they “sweep the eyeballs out in the morning”—he institutes a series of rules to keep the establishment free of violence: never start a fight in the bar, and “be nice.” I’ve never worked in an establishment like the Double Deuce. My professional life has remained blissfully free of violence. That doesn’t mean that I’ve never been stressed or yelled at on the job. It’s never nice to have a dissatisfied customer chew you out on the floor of the coffee bar, but every time I think I was about to lose my cool and start yelling back, I remembered Dalton. I, too, am a Philosophy student, I, too, am a professional, and I, too, only ever drink black coffee on the job.
If someone gets in my face I remember to not start anything, and to stay nice. The actual job of “itinerant bouncer who cleans up violent bars” —called a “cooler” in the film— is not a real one, but I like to think of it as a state of mind that is very real. That’s why every workday I come to work, clock in, pour myself a cup of black coffee, and I stay cool.
Jackson O’Brien is a coffee professional and freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Read more Jackson O’Brien for Sprudge.