ROAD HOUSE Review: Jake G. and His Abs Almost Make You Forget the Original

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
ROAD HOUSE Review: Jake G. and His Abs Almost Make You Forget the Original

Minutes into Doug Liman’s not entirely unwelcome remake, Elwood Dalton (Jake Gyllenhaal), fresh off of beating several bikers into bloody, messy pulps, politely offers to drive them to a nearby hospital.

Like viewers on the other side of the digital screen, the concussed, beaten-down bikers are incredulous, but the ever-polite, po-faced Dalton isn’t joking about his offer, not even in the slightest.

And off they go, cramming unconformably into a too-small sedan while a Zen-like Dalton drives them to a nearby hospital. It’s the same hospital where Dalton’s soon-to-be romantic interest, Ellie (Daniela Melchior, sadly underused), an emergency room doctor, works.
It’s the punchline to a joke, of course, one of the few in Liman’s straightforward, irony-free update of Rowdy Herrington and Patrick Swayze’s gloriously over-the-top cult classic. Gyllenhaal’s Dalton, an ex-UFC bruiser with a fearsome rep in or out of the octagon, isn’t prone to cracking 80s-style one-liners before, during, or after a barroom brawl. He prefers to sit at the bar, drink his Cuban coffee, and leap into action as needed. Spoiler: It’s almost always needed, allowing Gyllenhaal, like Swayze before him, to use his finely honed physical skills to bloody, brutal effect.  
The remake leaves Dalton’s pre-history somewhat unclear. Unlike his 1989 predecessor, this particular Dalton isn’t a typical “cooler” (head bouncer), contracting out his services to needy bars around the American South. Instead, he’s an ex-UFC fighter with the obligatory tragic past.

That past trails Dalton wherever he goes, whether in his dreams-turned-nightmares or in the fearsome rep that follows him on the underground fighting circuit where he makes what passes for a living. That rep’s so hardcore that underground fighters, fearing for their lives, refuse to fight him, forfeiting matches and winnings in the process. 

It's obvious Dalton has issues with a capital “I,” issues that can be only resolved through a handful of spirited bare-knuckle brawls. Like Herrington's original, Road House finds catharsis (i.e., emotional cleansing) in periodic outbursts of masculine violence. For Dalton, the opportunity to resolve those personal issues arrives in the form of the title roadhouse, the Road House (its actual name, a wan attempt at humor), in Glass Key, Florida.

Owned and operated by Frankie (Jessica Williams), the Road House literally stands in the way between an unscrupulous local developer, Ben Brandt (Billy Magnusson), and a luxury hotel resort. Brandt, in turn, sends waves of goons in Frankie’s general direction, expecting Frankie to eventually call it quits and sell out to him.
So far, so familiar. Working from an over-busy screenplay credited to Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry, Liman (Chaos Walking, American Made, Edge of Tomorrow) de-emphasizes the brawls, giving them scant screen time – and when he does, they’re often too brief or clumsily aided by obvious CGI – and overemphasizing Dalton’s anguished journey toward self-actualization, accepting himself not just as a traveling bouncer-for-hire, but an itinerant knight (or Western-inspired gunfighter, minus the sidearms) righting wrongs where, as usual for films in action-thriller genre, law enforcement is either non-existent, corrupt, or incompetent.
Dalton’s rote personal journey also leaves little room for Road House’s side stories and B-plots, like Dalton’s underdeveloped romance with Ellie, handled in two or three perfunctory scenes minus the sexual tension of the original, Dalton’s burgeoning friendship with a local teen, Charlie (Hannah Love Lanier), and her bookseller father, Stephen (Kevin Carroll), or Dalton’s purely transactional relationship with Frankie. Only Dalton’s relationship with Frankie qualifies as essential, while the bookshop story or even Ellie doesn’t. Either way, they should have been either expanded or cut altogether.
Of course, story, central or otherwise, isn’t why streaming viewers would choose Road House from thousands of other, similarly premised alternatives: The promised brawls between Dalton and any number of ill-mannered goons are. As brief or infrequent as they are, Gyllenhaal acquits himself more than capably, delivering the requisite body slams, kicks, and punches to worthy and unworthy foes alike with his usual commitment and intensity. 

Months of prep work undeniably helped too. As the Brandt family's violent, sociopathic enforcer, former UFC champion Conor McGregor isn’t asked to do much, but what he does do, gleefully brutalizing under-prepared opponents or matching a brooding Gyllenhaal glare-for-glare before their climactic throwdown, he does ably.

Road House (2024) begins streaming Thursday, March 21, via Prime Video.

Road House

  • Doug Liman
  • Anthony Bagarozzi
  • Chuck Mondry
  • R. Lance Hill
  • Jake Gyllenhaal
  • Conor McGregor
  • Daniela Melchior
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Billy MagnussonConor McGregorDaniela MelchiorDoug LimanHannah Love LanierJake GyllenhaalJessica WilliamsJoaquim de AlmeidaPost MaloneRoad HouseAnthony BagarozziChuck MondryR. Lance HillActionThriller

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