(On TV, November 2018) Peak Patrick Swayze cannot be explained—it has to be seen to be understood. And while Dirty Dancing usually imposes itself as the obligatory film in considering his Swayzeeness, I’d argue that Road House is a better place to start, or maybe to end. Swayze here plays a bar bouncer with a particular genius in making sure the place is well organized—keeping the riff-raff away, ensuring that employees are honest and taking care of any customers making trouble. As the story begins, he’s somehow convinced to leave a prestige assignment in New York City to help turn around a bar set deep in rural Missouri. As he rolls into the small community, we’re left to grin at this elaborate set-up for a classic “stranger comes into town” plot: The question isn’t whether he’s going to attract the attention of the corrupt local authorities and clean up the place, but in what style he’s going to do so. As such, it’s a near-perfect Swayze vehicle, allowing the actor to flex his skills as a credible action hero. Only a fairly lacklustre romance prevents Road House from truly making him shine. The rest of the film is familiar business, with the local mafia intimidating the honest men out there, and the protagonist going on an over-the-top rampage of violence to right the wrongs of the place. It gets surprisingly violent at times. Road House is not what we’d call a good movie: it’s clearly aimed both at female Swayze fans and at their boyfriends looking for a few action thrills. But its unsubtle, almost-earnest approach to a classical story means that it can be appreciated either straight or ironically, depending on your chosen viewing level. Many movies of the time have aged far less gracefully.
(On TV, May 2017) Surprisingly enough for a forty-something man, I ended up liking Dirty Dancing quite a bit better than I expected … but I don’t expect my idiosyncratic reaction to be widely shared, or even comprehensible. The roots of my appreciation, paradoxically enough, go back to the history of American stand-up comedy: Ever since learning that generations of American comedians developed their craft in the so-called “Borsch Belt” of Jewish-dominated resorts nestled in the Catskill mountains, I’ve been fascinated by that kind of vacationing. Leaving New York, driving upstate to spend a week or two in a big isolated resort? Intriguing. So imagine my astonished reaction when I sat down to watch Dirty Dancing and realized that it was a trip back in time to this kind of vacationing. Never mind that I went thirty years without realizing that Dirty Dancing wasn’t an eighties movie set during the eighties—here, we’re back to summer 1963, with a rich Jewish family going to a Catskill resort for summer holidays. Never mind the romance between our innocent protagonist as the dancer played by Patrick Swayze—I’m here for the depicting of Borsch Belt resorts, fun at the lake, hiking in the mountain and Wayne Knight delivering a bad joke as the movie portrayal of stand-up comedians hitting the Catskill resorts at the beginning of their careers. Of course, there’s a whole other movie going on about a girl losing her innocence (and wow does this film get dark on the margins of its main plot) and Patrick Swayze being offended when someone puts Baby in the corner. My interest in that aspect of the movie was never better than lukewarm, but that’s the idiosyncratic part of my reaction to the film. Jennifer Gray is instantly sympathetic as the heroine, at least, and Swayze does manage to keep his character likable even considering their mismatched levels of maturity. As I’ve said—I don’t expect anyone else in the world to like Dirty Dancing for the same reasons I did, but that’s not the point … unless you want it to be that different people can like the same thing for wildly different reasons.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) There’s no denying that Ghost has ascended to the film pantheon as a romantic fantasy film (cue the pottery sequence!) but a fresh viewing shows that the film is a bit more than that: Beyond the romance, it’s got strong comic moments, a decent amount of imaginative flair and quite a few thrills. Anchored by Patrick Swayze’s fair performance and bolstered by a surprisingly funny and good-looking Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost is more interesting when it deals with the mechanics and complications of a ghost trying to make contact with the living. Suspense elements are woven (not always seamlessly) with comic sequences, giving the film a multifaceted appeal that doesn’t quite degenerate into abrupt tonal shifts. Demi Moore is a bit generic and baby-faced Tony Goldwyn is more fascinating than anything else considering how well he has aged in Scandal. Still, the film holds up relatively well beyond the pottery sequence, hitting marks on a wide spectrum of targets. It’s enough to make anyone wonder if today’s blockbusters have grown a bit too selective in their intentions for fear of tonal incongruity. Ghost, at least, deftly goes from romance to comedy to horror to thrills, and the result still speaks for itself.
(Second viewing, On TV, May 2016) I must have first watched Point Break on TV sometime during the mid-nineties, but revisiting the film twenty-five years later reveals a stripped-down thriller that has aged into something of an enjoyable period piece. It helps that Kathryn Bigelow’s direction is almost timeless, using both snappy editing and long shots (such as the FBI office scene) to effectively make the most of its moments. The great action sequences complement a serviceable plot template that has been copied a few times—I’m looking at you, The Fast and the Furious. Keanu Reeves is practically iconic as the standoffish Johnny Utah, while Patrick Swayze remains effortlessly cool as the antagonist. There is, as pop culture has noted in the past twenty-five years (hello, Hot Fuzz), a considerable amount of overdone melodrama in the result—but that quality, paradoxically, has helped Point Break remain distinctive even today. The early-nineties details are now charming, while the core of the film’s execution remains just as sharp today as it was then. There’s now a “remake”, but it’s not really essential viewing.