‘Road House’ review: Jake Gyllenhaal’s remake is a limp handshake from Mashable

Look. It’s not like the original Road House was some untouchable relic. The 1989 Patrick Swayze vehicle was a horny, violent drama with a plot that was as clumsy as its leading man was devastatingly hot. It shouldn’t be impossible to remake it into something freshly fun. But my god do director Doug Liman and leading man Jake Gyllenhaal make it look difficult. 

Premiering at SXSW 2024’s opening night ahead of its debut on Prime Video, Road House re-imagines the story of a cool-as-a-cucumber yet capable of throat-ripping bouncer James Dalton for a new age and a new locale. And while screenwriters Anothony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry ditched dusty and dilapidated Missouri for a tropical island in the Florida Keys, this remake lacks the heat of the original. 

Road House is now about a disgraced UFC fighter. 

Jake Gyllenhaal and Conor McGregor in “Road House.”
Credit: Amazon MGM Studios

Gyllenhaal stars as Elwood Dalton, a former UFC middleweight running from a grim incident that ended his career and made him notorious. On a vague mission of self-imposed penance, he now bangs around in a beater car seeking shady boxing events to make some quick cash. His power to intimidate through reputation alone (though the muscles on display when he’s topless don’t hurt) attracts the attention of Frankie (Jessica Williams), who owns a road house called “The Road House” that’s being terrorized by a biker gang. She offers Dalton $20k for a month of beating back the bad guys, and he reluctantly accepts. 

Rolling into Glass Key, he swiftly befriends an adolescent bookworm called Charlie (Hannah Lanier), a plucky bartender named Laurel (the charismatic B.K. Cannon), and the bruised and scrawny (by comparison) bouncer Billy (Euphoria‘s Lukas Gage). Slapping the shit out of the biker gang is no problem for Dalton — and makes for a comically fun sequence as tough guys get cut down to size like grade school bullies. But soon he realizes that there’s a bigger foe to fight: local real estate tycoon Ben Brandt (Billy Magnussen doing the most with a lazily written villain role). You know Brandt is unhinged because he demands to be shaved by a barber with a straight razor while on a yacht racing through choppy waters. Why? I don’t know man, he’s so extreme or convinced everything will go his way or something. 

As the local police force has been corrupted by Brandt and his offscreen criminal father (who seems like he’d be a bigger plot point and then just isnt), it’s up to Dalton to not only clean up the Road House but save Glass Key from those who would gentrify it through force. Also he falls in love with a local doctor (a moody Daniela Melchior), who chides him about his violent ways, because Road House.  

Straight to streaming was the right choice for Road House

Daniela Melchior in “Road House.”
Credit: Amazon MGM Studios

Director Doug Liman made headlines when he proclaimed he’d boycott the film’s world premiere over Amazon MGM Studos’ decision to skip a theatrical release and go straight to streaming. (He did in fact attend.) As Liman has seen success with action hits like The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith and the critically heralded Edge of Tomorrow, this initially seemed a blunder by the distributor. But now having seen Road House, I get it. 

Sure, the original Road House had as convoluted a plotline. But as it was hardly its most praised asset. (That’d be Sam Elliott’s glorious ponytail, probably.) So it’s bizarre that Bagarozzi and Mondry so thoroughly retread that territory, especially as their version lacks a satisfying number of fight scenes. Or maybe it’s just that the fight scenes themselves are not satisfying. Considering Liman’s filmography, that’s frankly shocking. But there’s an off-putting disconnect between the film’s action aesthetic and its content. 

This is a movie about a guy who doesn’t like guns or knives, and favors his fists for beating the hell out of any takers. It’s a raw, primal violence that played well in the ’80s era of machismo and big hair. But such bravado might be frowned upon today without some tweaks. So this Dalton extolls detailed knowledge about the damage he’s done, showing a self-awareness and even a kind streak as he drives his victims to the hospital. (Shout out to comedic actor Arturo Castro, who makes the most of every beat and beating, stealing scenes with his wide-eyed naïveté.) 

Fun slapping aside, Road House‘s combat is largely underwhelming in its staging. To enhance the impact of blows, Liman relies on whip-pans intended to inject momentum into movement and speed ramps that essentially speed up the edit of a punch to make it look faster. The result though is a movie that is certainly flashier than the original but looks clearly manipulated, which detracts from the gritty fantasy of one guy against the world. 

Liman also gives in to modern action demands of more more more. So the violence swiftly moves from slapping to bone-snapping, to arson, explosions, and a boat chase that sure is long, though not enthralling. It becomes just another action movie. In a packed theater, some of these moments earned cheers from the enthusiastic opening night crowd. Others were met with dull silence. Perhaps because the pacing between plot, action, and comedy ranges from off-balance to inexplicable, or maybe because Gyllenhaal is not landing the beats of this role. 

Jake Gyllenhaal is no Patrick Swayze. 

Jake Gyllenhaal and Lukas Gage in “Road House.”
Credit: Amazon MGM Studios

In the original Road House as iconic as the throat rip that echoes across decades of action movies was Swayze’s attitude. A cool rebellion against glowering action heroes, Dalton was almost breezy when he wasn’t punching dudes out. “I thought you’d be bigger,” some might sneer, because he wasn’t as instantly intimidating as his reputation would suggest. But the threat of his violence was enhanced by how calm he was before the storm. “Be nice” was not a request, it was a threat. 

Gyllenhaal cannot replicate this zen-like calm, so the balance is lost. He lacquers on a crooked grin and sips coffee coolly as things begin to get rowdy. But he exudes a high energy onscreen that reads either as anxious (Zodiac), arrogant (Velvet Buzzsaw, Spider-Man: Far From Home), manic (Okja), or tightly wound (Nightcrawler). So, we as an audience cannot luxuriate in the vicarious pleasure of feeling calm in the face of bar brawl chaos. Instead, we can sense the tension under this Dalton’s thin veneer of chill. Not only does it bleed out the fun of senseless violence, but also it telegraphs the reveal of what Dalton did, which is predictable enough and tediously repeatedly. 

This Road House lacks balls. 

Jake Gyllenhaal and Billy Magnussen in “Road House.”
Credit: Amazon MGM Studios

There is violence and some shocking showdowns in Liman’s version. But the film’s dedication to keeping Dalton a good guy makes for some deeply stupid storytelling choices. There will be no throat rip, but a flashy speed boat chase scene, and an alligator attack that looks as scary as a beer-bellied dad splashing around an above ground swimming pool. The sweat and dirt and animal magnetism of the original is replaced with gloss and sunshine and an actual animal. 

So the action is underwhelming. But how’s the sex appeal? To Liman’s credit, he pulls a Michael Bay, shooting Gyllenhaal from a low angle that makes him tower in frame, his ripped torso glistening under the sun or confoundingly bright bar lighting. The leading man is sexy. His romantic lead is beautiful. They have one single kiss that’s titillating. And that’s it. Has the online discourse over too much sex in cinema infected the Road House remake? Or is it just this tame of its own accord? Either way, the riskiest move this movie makes is casting Conor McGregor as an eccentric goon. 

The Irish MMA fighter makes his on-screen acting debut in Road House. (He lent his voice to the video game Call of Duty: Infinite War in 2016). And outside of his lack of experience, considering McGregor has so many controversies that his wiki page has a whole section dedicated to them, it’s an eyebrow-raising casting choice. To his credit, the pro-fighter storms onto screen with major charisma and a bare-ass, wreaking havoc in a bustling marketplace while taking a phone call. It’s a moment so outrageous that it has Fast X Jason Momoa vibes. But in every scene after, McGregor proves one-note. His character is a caricature of a brash and boisterous tough guy. He strides around with his arms arched wide like Popeye. His face is stuck in a perpetual threatening grin…actually also like Popeye. Like Magnussen, he is perpetually keyed up, giving the character nowhere to go. And so even this merciless mercenary becomes a bit of a bore. It’s a stunt casting ploy that doesn’t play. 

On the technical end, there are bewildering choices as well. The color correct is inconsistent, with Dalton looking like a tanned god in some scenes and a washed out man on the brink of collapse in others. The sound design is confounding, as much of the film takes place outside or in open-air venues, yet all of it sounds like it was recorded on a stage. Wind, birds, and life don’t seem to exist here, just the canned audio — some of which may have been created by AI. The best thing about the audio in this Road House is the array of musical performances, which range from rock to zydeco to alt-pop, but all bop. In these, there’s an energy that feels grounded and enticing. But elsewhere, this remake is leaning on tired action cliches (innocent kid needs defending, pouting but smart love interest, requisite chase scene, idiotic post-cred scene) without making a mark of its own. 

In the end, Road House is a wreck. While there are enough goodies to make for a compelling trailer, Liman and company fail to deliver a remake worth streaming, much less a theatrical release. 

Road House was reviewed out the world premiere at SXSW 2024; the film will hit Prime Video on March 21.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *