James Dalton (Patrick Swayze) is a professional "cooler" (i.e. specialized doorman or bouncer) with a mysterious past who is enticed from his current job at a club in New York City by Frank Tilghman (Kevin Tighe) to take over security at his club/bar, the Double Deuce, in Jasper, Missouri. Tilghman plans to invest substantial money into the club to enhance its image and needs a first-rate cooler to maintain stability.
Arriving in Jasper, Dalton eventually takes lodging at a local farm owned by Emmett ("Sunshine" Parker). He attracts attention driving his 1965 Buick Riviera and having a quiet demeanor—contrasting with the tough locals. Dalton's "real" car is a 1986 Mercedes 560SEC with New York license plates, which he keeps hidden (at a private garage and later under a car cover in his landlord's barn in Jasper) because it becomes a target for disgruntled bar patrons. Dalton is soon introduced to local business magnate (and next door neighbor) Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), who appears to have a stranglehold on the town; little happens without his knowledge and approval. In the course of cleaning up the violent nightclub, Dalton dismisses several unruly and corrupt employees, some of whom are connected with Wesley. After one particularly violent night where Dalton is forced to physically remove Wesley's henchmen, he suffers a knife wound. Going to the hospital for stitches, he strikes up a friendship with Dr. Elizabeth "Doc" Clay (Kelly Lynch), which develops into a romantic relationship.
Wesley summons Dalton to his home in a seemingly innocent attempt to make peace, but has an ulterior motive: Wesley would like Dalton to work for him once he extorts Tilghman's club. He reveals knowledge of Dalton's past by mentioning an incident where Dalton killed a man in Memphis, Tennessee, then claimed self-defense at the trial. When Dalton declines, Wesley begins an assault on Dalton's friends, including interfering with liquor deliveries to the Double Deuce. Dalton's mentor, legendary but aging cooler Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott), arrives in town after a disconcerting phone call from Dalton and helps him defend a liquor shipment from Wesley's thugs.
That evening, local business owner Red Webster's (Red West) auto parts store is destroyed by a fire after he refuses to give ground to Wesley's persistent extortion demands. Dalton, not wanting to exacerbate matters, allows Wesley and his men entrance to the club that night. The next day, car dealership owner Pete Stroudenmire becomes Wesley's next victim when he also refuses to pay. As a result, Wesley has one of his thugs, Gary Ketchum (Anthony De Longis), demolish the dealership and crush four station wagons in the showroom with his monster truck (BIGFOOT #7) as Dalton and his friends look on with contempt.
That night, Doc visits Dalton and attempts to persuade him to leave. However, their conversation is interrupted by a powerful explosion at Emmett's house next door. Dalton rescues Emmett from the blaze before his house is destroyed. He then witnesses one of Wesley's henchmen, Jimmy (Marshall Teague), fleeing the scene, and manages to intercept him. After a vicious fight, Dalton kills Jimmy by ripping out his throat with his bare hand. The next morning, Dalton receives an ominous phone call from Wesley, who vows to have either Wade or Doc killed. At that moment, a badly beaten Wade staggers into the Double Deuce. Believing Doc to be in danger, Dalton races to the hospital alone, but she refuses to leave with him, repulsed by his increasingly violent nature. Upon returning to the Double Deuce, Dalton finds Wade sprawled out on the bar with a knife lodged in his chest. In tears of rage, Dalton pulls the knife free and jumps into his car, determined to settle the score with Wesley.
Driving his Mercedes, Dalton speeds recklessly toward Wesley's estate. The car draws gunfire from Wesley's henchmen, but when it crashes, they discover the car empty, and the knife that was used to kill Wade stuck in the accelerator. Using the distraction, Dalton sneaks onto the estate on foot and, one by one, dispatches each of Wesley's thugs, eventually coming face-to-face with Wesley. Dalton gains the upper hand in their fight and prepares to finish Wesley in the same brutal manner as Jimmy, but decides against it. As Dalton releases him and walks away, Wesley seizes the opportunity to reach for a gun, but is promptly shot to death by Red, Emmett, Stroudenmire, and Tilghman. They stash the weapons away prior to the arrival of law enforcement and proceed to corroborate each other's innocence, with the implication that what happened in Wesley's house will remain a secret.
The final scene finds Dalton and Doc enjoying each other's company in a swimming hole, suggesting that they do get together and Dalton remains in town for good.
The Double Deuce scenes were filmed in Newhall, California. The bar was constructed for the movie and dismantled once filming was completed. The filming of much of the "New Double Deuce" was done at the Cowboy/The Bandstand (which went by other names as well until it closed) located at 1721 S Manchester Ave in Anaheim, California. Scenes involving Brad Wesley's house and the house in which Dalton rents a room were filmed outside of Sanger, California, and the opening and monster truck scenes were filmed in Reedley, California. The Kings River runs between the two residences.
The film had a mixed reception with critics. Negative reviews such as one published by Variety were critical of "a flat romantic attachment" between Dalton and Clay while garnering criticism since its "vigilante justice, lawlessness and wanton violence feel ludicrous in a modern setting." Other reviews are critical of Swayze's role as Dalton.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 2½ out of 4 stars and commented that "'Road House' exists right on the edge between the 'good-bad movie' and the merely bad. I hesitate to recommend it, because so much depends on the ironic vision of the viewer. This is not a good movie. But viewed in the right frame of mind, it is not a boring one, either." The film has earned a 38% "Rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 32 reviews, with an average rating of 5/10.
When interviewed by Anthony Bourdain, Bill Murray lauded the film as unappreciated, with a complex plot and respect among actors in the film industry since its release.
Although the film was not a major box office success, it did quite well on home video. The film also found life on cable television. Over time, the movie has garnered a cult following.
Road House was nominated for (but did not win) five Golden Raspberry Awards: Worst Picture, Worst Actor (Patrick Swayze), Worst Supporting Actor (Ben Gazzara), Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay. The film is listed in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson's book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.
The soundtrack for Road House featured Canadian guitarist Jeff Healey, whose band was featured in the film as the house band for the Double Deuce. Cruzados were the band in the opening credits, contributing three songs to the film that never made the soundtrack. Patrick Swayze also wrote one song and sang two for the soundtrack. The film's score was composed by Michael Kamen.
A sequel, Road House 2, was released directly to DVD in July 2006. Set many years later and telling the story of Dalton's adult son, it featured no one from the original cast and only a few references to Dalton (who was reportedly shot dead before the film took place). The sequel confirmed that Dalton's first name was James, which could be seen momentarily on the medical chart in the original film's hospital scene, but which had been otherwise unstated. At the same time Road House 2 was released, the original film was reissued in a deluxe edition featuring, among other features, separate audio commentary tracks by director Herrington, Kevin Smith, and Scott Mosier, which the duo had expressed an interest in during the introduction of the tenth anniversary Clerks DVD.
In 2003, an off-Broadway musical production of Road House was staged as a campy comedy by Timothy Haskell, as seen by its full title of Road House: The Stage Version Of The Cinema Classic That Starred Patrick Swayze, Except This One Stars Taimak From The 80’s Cult Classic "The Last Dragon" Wearing A Blonde Mullet Wig.
It was reported that the NYPD was using a scene from Road House as part of a mandatory, three-day retraining course for 22,000 officers.
On September 9, 2015, it was announced that Ronda Rousey would star in a remake of Road House. On October 12, 2015, Nick Cassavetes was announced to write and direct the film. However, after Rousey's loss to Holly Holm at UFC 193 on November 15, 2015, the project was taken out of production.