Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Swayze Wayze

Patrick Swayze may not have long to live. Generally, you read a story about anyone with pancreatic cancer, that’s a sure sign the person won’t be around very long. Say what you want, but what I’ve learned about cancer: if you are unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with a form that’s lethal/in latter stages, it’s better to go fast than slow. The choice being a few months of agony as opposed to years of prolonged agony. Of course, life is precious, but when it’s made clear to you that the quality of your life will be such that it will be extreme physical pain and immobility, leaving in a hurry has its merits.

So I may as well do my tribute to Patrick Swayze while he’s still around. Most of the roles he’s played in movies go right by me. When Dirty Dancing rolls around on cable TV, I rarely watch more than a few minutes. You’d have to pay me to watch Ghost. Those are not the kind of movies I want to remember Swayze for, regardless of the fact that they made him a star.

I want to remember him particularly for Roadhouse, Point Break, Next of Kin and one key scene in Red Dawn. They may not be Academy Award material, but frankly, when a shit movie like Crash and half a good movie (the first half) like American Beauty win the awards for best picture, the Academy doesn’t matter in terms of what will last. The stars who win will get a nice little career boost, most likely into generic blockbusters that no one gives a shit about, but such is life in Hollywood. It’s probably better to fly under the radar out there, make less money and still have the ability to do your thing.

Ironically, the three movies noted above were meant to be blockbuster action movies for Swazye as the lead actor. Strictly speaking, the movies are trash. But within their trashiness, there’s something worthwhile, and much of that has to do with Patrick Swayze. The apex of Swayze’s run, of course, is Roadhouse: a gem of a bad movie that I can watch repeatedly, even on cable stripped of its wonderful profanity and key nude scenes, where it routinely appears. It taps into some perfect white-trash ethic much like blaxploitation flicks of the early 70s did with black audiences. Dalton, the bouncer with a degree in philosophy from NYU who Swayze plays, is the redneck Shaft.

The story is basic: midwestern bar owner needs a head bouncer to clean up his rapidly failing club, goes to New York to offer the legendary Dalton (he only has one name) the position. The bar owner thought he’d be bigger, but they strike a deal anyway. Dalton comes to town to find that not just the bar, but the entire town is in the grips of an evil local entrepreneur who runs everything through his wealth. He has a group of henchmen to help “influence” people to see his way. And it’s Dalton’s unasked for task to bring the evil businessman down. Along the way, he meets a sexy doctor who once dated the evil businessman, they fall in love, and this relationship encourages him to stay and fight. Also, his bouncing guru, a grizzled vet working in a strip club down south joins forces with him after Dalton informs him that he’s in over his head with a local power lord.

Not much of a story, but as noted, Swayze, and the rest of the cast, make it work. Frankly, if you don’t like rednecks, this is your movie, because most of it is spent with the urbane Dalton character kicking serious redneck ass. The movie is wall-to-wall ass-kicking, filled with great one liners. Red, the hardware store owner, answering Dalton’s question as to whether he’s not happy with the shakedowns his store is subject to: “Does a hobby horse have a wooden dick?” The old farmer who offers Dalton a room in a barn hay loft: “It ain't the money ya understand, but if I don't charge ya somethin' the Presbyterians around here are likely to pray for my ruination. How does a hundred dollars a month strike ya?”

The most memorable line, though, is in a key to-the-death fight scene where Dalton takes on the businessman’s main bull after he blows up the old farmer’s house. The bull gets Dalton in a headlock and mutters: “I used to fuck guys like you in prison.”

Man! Do you know what a powerful line that is? If I was in a physical confrontation like that in real life and my opponent muttered that, I’d stop, throw up my hands, and say, “You win!” Then walk away, fast. Because if the line is true, and the guy has indeed fucked guys like me in prison, man, I don’t want any part of that action. And if it’s just a put-on, putting it out there that the guy’s pondered violent homosexual rape, well, that’s enough for me to think better of doing anything with that person.

I remember hearing that line and thinking, “Perfection … that’s the sort of line that works in real life and the movies.” It’s the kind of thing a badass would say to put a horrible negative image in his opponent’s mind: a mind-fuck of the highest degree. The movie is filled with those sort of knowing tough-guy moments. Dalton doesn’t consider himself tough – he considers himself tapped into some philosophical view of the world in which bouncing, and hurting people, is a last resort, one that he unfortunately is very good at. Thus, Dalton’s quandary. He’s good at something he knows is very bad, and he wants to be good. It’s Swayze’s laidback/rural demeanor that wins us over, that makes us see this quandary his character faces. He may not be very smart, but he’s basically a very nice guy, who calls older men “sir” and won’t fight anyone unless he’s hit first.

And the reality is we as the audience think that is Patrick Swayze, that he isn’t acting at all. That same hang-loose, everyman demeanor worked to much greater effect in 1991’s Point Break, in my opinion, the best movie he made. Swayze stars as Bodhi, a charismatic surfer who turns a bunch of his surfing buddies into successful bank robbers, who don the masks of ex-presidents on their jobs and need to be brought down by undercover agent, Johnny Utah, played horribly, as usual, by Keanu Reeves, who is like a cardboard cutout next to Swayze. You want to see the difference between good actors, between those who put forth some degree of humanity in their roles and those who are just along for the ride, compare these two in this movie. Actually, you can compare Reeves to other good actors in the movie like Gary Busey and John C. McGinley. The secret of all good action movies: good actors pocketing change in supporting roles between more serious projects.

Bodhi’s cult of bank robbers forms around his dual belief in surfing as a sort of physical religion and his lack of faith in the 9-to-5 existence. He believes these people are already dead, and that he and his group of surfing robbers, if nothing else, are alive, living to surf, funding their care-free lifestyle with the occasional bank heist. It works only because Swayze is so convincing, again, that easy physicality he brings to the role – he’s the nicest guy in the movie. Even the way he walks, bow-legged and swinging his arms, suggests some guy happy with a factory job as opposed to a fearless leader.

To be honest, even with the knowledge that he and his gang were armed bank robbers willing to kill innocent bystanders, I still rooted for them, simply because I liked Bodhi and his spirit, the work ethic he imparted on a “fun” lifestyle. When he found out Johnny Utah was an FBI agent, he didn’t panic, or try to kill him. He brought him in closer and tried to win him over to his point of view. He takes him sky-diving, which proves a liberating experience for Utah, but ends when he lets him know the jig is up afterwards, and he’s holding his ex (and Utah’s current) girlfriend for ransom so he can win time to make a run for Mexico.

It’s a good lead actor who can easily move between good and bad guy roles, and the audience responds equally to both. Swayze may not have been doing Shakespeare, but whatever role he was given, he played it well. Next of Kin is the weakest of this action-flick trio. Swayze stars as a Chicago detective, from Appalachia, whose brother is killed when a mafia crew sticks up the truck he’s driving. The rest of the flick is his drawn-out revenge, uncovering the case, and losing control of it when his other brother, an Appalachian redneck played by Liam Neeson, comes to Chicago to exact his own revenge.

The problem with this movie is that Neeson steals it from Swayze. He’s brilliant, and I don’t even like Liam Neeson. The straggly-haired look, the mannerisms, the accent – he somehow nailed that deep Appalachia vibe. And he gets to steal the fire from Swayze, who plays the more rational/level-headed brother who tries to nail the mafia dons through legal methods. It’s a bad idea to make the lead actor in an action movie the voice of reason – it’s the antithesis of using the movie as a vehicle for the lead actor. We watch these kind of movies to see the lead badass kick bad guys’ asses – sorry if that sounds too pedantic. In Next of Kin, a supporting actor gets to do this. This should have been a star vehicle for Liam Neeson, save he never seemed cut out to excel at action flicks (although I see he's starring in one now and have to wonder how well it will do.)

Aside from these three movies, there is one other scene with Swayze that I always refer back to as an example of how good an actor he is. And that’s from 1984’s Red Dawn, John Milius’ heavy-handed action flick regarding the possibility of Russians invading America, and how bands of vigilantes, in this case the Wolverines (a bunch of high-school kids who slipped out of town during the attacks and lived in the woods while launching guerilla attacks on the Russians), rise up to fight back.

It’s not a bad movie. I recall at the time it got hounded for being a heavy-dose of right-wing scare tactics, but as time has gone on, it can be viewed as just an interesting, slightly above average action flick. There is one scene, though that always gets to me, and that’s when a few of the teenagers go back into town from the woods to see how things have changed under Russian occupation. Of course, everything is wrong. Tanks and troops everywhere, businesses closed down, towns people afraid to speak to each other on the street. Swayze plays one of the teenagers, along with C. Thomas Howell as his younger brother and Charlie Sheen as one of their high-school friends. Swayze finds out that his father is being held at a “re-education camp” set-up at the local drive-in for “trouble makers,” which is of course short-hand for a death camp.

Here’s a link with that scene – it starts up around the four-minute mark.
I guess this got to me because I knew, as a movie-goer, that Swayze’s father had died a year or two earlier. (Believe it or not, he must be 31 years old in this scene.) Everyone is good in this scene – I’d say Harry Dean Stanton as the doomed father plays it best. But give credit to Swayze – he taps into something memorable, obviously from his own recent pain, and I’m sitting here almost 25 years later recalling that scene as if it was yesterday. That’s exactly how a bunch of high-school kids would have handled the understanding that their father was assuming he was a dead man, and this was goodbye. Crying, professing love, not sure what to do – and the father telling them to stop crying, time to be men, because he won’t be around to teach them how to do that anymore.

Swayze has other good moments – his cameo as a greasy infomercial guru in Donnie Darko was excellent. His Saturday Night Live episode from 1990 was excellent, also, although it gave Chris Farley the opportunity to over-shadow him in the legendary Chippendales sketch. Like the good actor he is, he plays the scene straight and let’s Farley shine. (It’s odd that I can’t find a direct clip of this on youtube or hulu – plenty of horrible tributes and bad songs played over the skit, but not the actual skit itself.)

Whenever Patrick Swayze passes along, it’s going to be a grand farewell, tributes of all sorts, his DVD’s selling like hotcakes. When a guy that good-looking, and that relatively young, gets a lethal form of cancer, the media machine goes into overdrive over his passing, making it more than it is. Topping it off, by all accounts, Swayze is a genuinely nice guy, not a prick, not full of himself, just a handsome guy who got into acting, had a very good run for a few decades, and seemed just as content when his star faded through the 90s and the big roles weren’t coming in.

I’ll miss him for that simple spirit he imparted in the above-noted roles, the fun he had in a piece of shit like Roadhouse, turning a rote B-Movie into a genuine cult classic. I can’t be bothered with his chick-flick movies. To me, the true spirit of Swayze, the Swayze Wayze, is that of the unassuming everyman, knows he’s a good-looking guy, doesn’t care, doesn’t rest on his laurels, knows that life is hard, and it requires making up some new rules sometimes, is content to make that stumpy weird walk of his off into the sunset, probably just like his dad did long before his time, and let people say what they want about him. He’s a star who carried himself like a supporting actor, and that says something good about his character. I want to remember him for kicking ass.

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