Road House Punches Mores Than Sizzles

(L-R) Conor McGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal in Road House. Image courtesy of Amazon/MGM Studios

Short of being chosen for historical preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress (and come on, Librarian of Congress, get on that already, jeez), 1989’s Road House is a stone cold classic and an exemplar of the decade’s hey-dey of manly action movies. People come back to rewatch the movie for all sorts of reasons. For some, it’s a time capsule to the prime era of the late Patrick Swayze. For others, it’s the raucous and silly energy of the macho fisticuffs and rampant property destruction that fuel Roddy Harrington’s film. Whatever is your reason to love and return to Road House over the last 35 years will tilt your approval or disfavor with Doug Liman’s new remake starring Jake Gyllenhaal landing exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

If you’re “Crazy for Swayze,” there’s no beating the mullet-ed original, no matter how ripped the 43-year-old, six-foot tall blue-eyed Californian looks before us. On the other hand, if you’re the garish action junkie, you are the larger majority targeted for this new incarnation. This Road House trades outdoor tai chi and sloppy barroom brawling for lightning-quick and bone-cracking mixed martial arts panache. Apply that doubled brutality to Gyllenhaal’s charisma, and one hand washes the other in sweat, sea water, and blood. 

A man looks around after getting off a bus in Road House
Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Road House Photo by Laura Radford for Amazon

The introduction of Elwood Dalton (Gyllenhaal) at the beginning of Road House recalls, without saying it out loud, the “pain don’t hurt” line from 1989. He has scared an underground cage fight opponent into forfeiting just by taking his shirt off and revealing his identity. As the bystander shouting hints, Dalton is a former UFC fighter of some notorious repute and not the guy anyone is going to beat in a fair fight. The keyword there is “fair,” as Dalton takes a knife to the gut without breaking his expression, dispatching the upset sore loser in the parking lot. Yup, that’s the right Dalton to embody.

Matching the original, Elwood is soon propositioned to become a bouncer by Frankie (Jessica Williams of TV’s Shrinking), the current owner of a popular beachside nightspot The Road House in the Florida Keys that’s been in her family for generations. The throwback venue in Glass Key rocking the A-frame thatched roof and billing as a former haunt of Ernest Hemingway has become an unruly place with the wrong clientele. She offers Dalton $5000 a week and secluded lodging on her boat to be the human nuclear deterrent. The borderline teetotaler makes his presence known in Glass Key on the first night at The Road House swigging coffee, kicking ass, and driving his injured rivals to the hospital.

A woman looks around sitting at her desk.
Jessica Williams in Road House. Photo by Laura Radford for Amazon.

The top of the food chain causing Frankie trouble is the yacht-dwelling Ben Brandt (Game Night’s Billy Magnussen working the hot-headed, douche-y eccentricities to a fever pitch). He is the son of an imprisoned crime boss tasked to get rid of The Road House in order to make way for lucrative resort real estate developments. As Dalton dispatches more of Brandt’s local goons, Ben makes a call to bring in the big buns… I mean guns… in the form of the hired loquacious screwloose Knox, played by former UFC champion Conor McGregor making his feature film debut.

There’s a wide open door for litigiously-minded nitpickers of this current generation to destroy the plot trappings of both the original and new Road House versions. To watch Jake’s Elwood Dalton ask the mouthy thug he’s about to deck if he has health insurance or knows where the closest hospital is counts as comedic tongue-in-cheek steps taken by screenwriters Anthony Bagarozzi (The Nice Guys) and newcomer Chuck Monday to evolve the previous caveman hero. Even with his inquired warnings openly stated, we still find idiot victims who talk about suing. Go figure. Alas, that’s the state of security work and physical assault in the 21st century as it reverses the old adage of “shoot first and ask questions later.” True to form, we’re still in the realm of “nobody wins in a fight” and the cardinal Swayze rule of “be nice.” 

Two men talk at a bar in Road House.
(L-R) Billy Magnussen and Jake Gyllenhaal in Road House. Photo by Laura Radford for Amazon

To boot, there are other topical updates attempted by Doug Liman (The Edge of Tomorrow), the screenplay, and his artistic teams. Any guise of law enforcement was completely absent in 1989, and is now upgraded to an imposing sheriff’s department run by Professional Movie Villain Joaquim de Almeida (Desperado, Clear and Present Danger). In the heel department, Conor McGregor has the absolute “It” factor of dangerous and jovial charisma to steal every scene he’s in. Beyond the plot, the location scouting of Boni Canto (The Killer) that brought the production to the architecture and vistas of the Dominican Republic to stand-in as a more rustic Florida is a rich aesthetic enhancement. The same goes for the wide array of talented and diverse bands (five in all) performing behind the chicken wire fencing to fill an ideally sunny soundtrack. 

Arguably the biggest improvement arrives in the area of the fight work where many fans are focusing their anticipation. Cinematographer Henry Braham, a recent superhero specialist from the James Gunn tree (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, The Suicide Squad), keeps the camera darting like a fox, even placing itself in the POV chests of combatants taking hits. The digital enamel over the fight violence is a little too easy to spot, but the vehicular and pugilistic thrills executed by Garrett Morgan (Logan), marine coordinator Bo Sanchez (Nyad), fight coordinator and second unit director Steve Brown (Avatar: The Way of Water) are impressive enough to jolt your adrenaline and elicit howls of malicious delight. 

A man stands to fight with a makeshift wooden stake in Road House
Conor McGregor in Road House. Photo by Laura Radford for Amazon

Plenty of aspects about this Road House are not improvements. Jake’s Dalton, played less zen and a little more frank and cocky by the actor, gets an elaborate UFC middleweight backstory that is parsed through the film to be a shocking revelation of character is something over-explained for the legend that would have been better left as spoken than seen. Also, our lead do-gooder is seen befriending a local bookstore daughter (Hannah Love Lanier of Special Ops: Lioness) and tutoring an impressionable pair of studly youngster employees (You ensemble member Lukas Gage and Ray Donovan’s Dominique Columbus) in his crowd control tactics, but they all disappear from participation and consequence in the final act. 

Along the same lines, the two biggest misses in Road House are a buddy and a lover for Jake Gyllenhaal which, in this day and age could have come from one character instead of a third wheel. The presence of Sam Elliott’s Wade Garrett and Kelly Lynch’s fetching Dr. Clay pleasantly made Patrick Swayze’s all-business loner more human. Elliott’s role, in particular, also gave Swayze a tag team partner for the scuffles when the odds were not in his favor. There’s no co-headliner, mentor presence, or second banana hero next to Jake, and the movie could sorely use one. Likewise, not even the searing Gulf of Mexico sun could help generate legitimate sexual chemistry between Fast X’s Daniela Melchoir and Gyllenhaal. The kind of sizzling trait would correct a few kinks and knots in this movie’s muscles.

No matter what, somewhere there’s a popular Lisa Simpson meme about movie remakes giving the 2024 Road House a hard stare under a bright spotlight. The meme’s notion is 100% correct. While the new elements are going for fresh style, the on-the-nose western motif of the drifter hero cleaning up a derelict little town has been done before and better. That aside, a second disclaimer declaring “remakes do not erase or replace originals” always seems to be necessary to say out loud (or on the ranting threads of social media) for those red-asses living in the past. There’s more than enough crowd-pleasing flair to let this Road House have its shot to slap us in the face and draw our blood of amusement (which should be happening in theaters, but that’s a whole other column).

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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