I come to praise Patrick Swayze, not bury him. He was our B-level action star with romantic credibility, and we forgave him for Dirty Dancing _and _Ghost _because he gave us _Roadhouse _and _Red Dawn. The martial arts crossover was inevitable—execs don’t see any difference between ballet and kung fu — and the expressionless acting worked for each Swayzean archetype: the greaser bad boy, the misunderstood rebel with a heart of gold, the mourning husband, the stoic bouncer, and the post-apocalyptic warrior.
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Insert hilarious comments at the 12-second mark of that trailer. Even in the future, they need dance belts.
So whatever happened to Steel Dawn? Our gravel-voiced narrator tells us “the legend begins” and I’m sure that’s what they hoped for. The film is terrible but that’s no excuse; they made a sequel to Eddie and the Cruisers. The problem (as is usually the case; i.e. The Scorpion King) lies with the villain. Anthony Zerbe as Damnil the wasteland-fascist looks like a confused guy at the Apple Store, muttering about the days of 1200 baud. Compare Damnil to my all-time favorite wasteland fascist — The Humungus, from The Road Warrior (awesomeness begins at 45 sec.):
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My God there was a villain. S&M outfit, pulsing veins on his fallout-scorched skull, and a scary mask. Plus his weapon of choice was a trident. A trident! The Humungus was such a badass he required “The” before his name.
Onward. Past Road House (enough has been written about that movie) and Tiger Warsaw (less said the better). We arrive at 1989’s Next of Kin. Swayze adds a new archetype: the backwoods tough guy with a hard-on for justice, as if Johny Castle were raised with a little more discipline. Big-city Italians fuck with the wrong Ozark family, and are subject to street justice. Deliverance-style. Well, not quite. There’s no sodomy, but there are arrows, and fiddles, and toothless guys wielding double-barrel shotties:
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Remember Russell Crowe’s performance in Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead? Here, I thought, is a quality actor taking on the sort of roles meant for Cinemax at one in the morning. This is no criticism—we need those movies because they’re fun, and we need talented actors to make them more fun (Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Showgirls). Roll a joint, open a bag of Trader Joe’s cheese puffs, and watch what happens when a good actor elevates a cheesy movie. But Crowe got all serious on us — beginning with the terrible A Beautiful Mind — and we realize with a shudder that Swayze could have done the same. He could have stuck with romantic films or tried to only make “important” movies. He did not. He chose post-apocalyptic retreads, southern-fried action fests, and whatever roles required him to fight shirtless and flash that Swayzean-closeup (turn head to the camera, scowl, and utter one-liner warning of redemption/justice/venegeance-a-comin’).
And they all work. Put me on a desert island with a choice of Russell Crowe DVD’s or Swayze DVD’s. It’s not a fair contest. How many other actors can claim starring roles in both a post-apocalyptic shitstorm and this (awesomeness begins at 1:08):
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There’s no need to bury Patrick Swayze. Ever. I suspect long after the apocalypse, when cities have turned to dust and only plastic remains, a lone wanderer will stumble upon a DVD case of Steel Dawn, and he will know that there went a dancer-hero, a bouncer with a degree in philosophy from NYU, and a greaser who actually made bump-n-grind cool.