Review: ‘Road House’

Jake Gyllenhaal Knuckles Up With Conor McGregor In A Knockout Brawler That Doesn't Try To Beat The Original

I wouldn’t call myself a supporter of remaking the classic zen brawler Road House, but it didn’t piss me off, either.  The original is god-tier as far as I’m concerned. It’s zany, has solid fights, is imminently quotable, and features an iconic Patrick Swayze performance  that will stand the test of time. In my video celebrating this amazing film, I called it the “John Wick of bouncer action flicks”. It remains undefeated, in my book. But that’s not a knock against the new Road House debuting on Prime Video and directed by Doug Liman. It’s a strong contender and wildly entertaining, but it’s also a very different beast.

That last point is a good thing, by the way. A blow-for-blow remake of Road House couldn’t work because nobody can ever duplicate that special something that Swayze had. Casting Jake Gyllenhaal as Dalton, an ex-UFC fighter rebounding from a devastating event in the octagon, immediatey changes the tenor of the entire film. While his Dalton is aloof, cracks wise in the midst of danger, and packs a mean set of six-pack abs, he’s definitely no Buddhist looking to avoid conflict.

Dalton strolls into Glass Key (a wink to Dashiell Hammett fans), the most fucked-up, aggro place in all of the Florida Keys to take a job bouncing at a bar that seems pretty chill during the day. But at night, it turns into an alcohol-fueled battle royale. The owner, Frankie, played by the always great and reliable Jessica Williams, recruited Dalton after seeing him at an underground fight club (look out for Post Malone in this bit) using his UFC notoriety to score some easy non-combat victories. She’s hoping he can ward off violence at her bar the same way. But it doesn’t work. Night one and his fame works against him, inspiring a round of goons to want to fight with him. It doesn’t go well for them, obviously, and the hospital suddenly becomes a very popular place around town. So much so that one ER doctor, Ellie, played by Suicide Squad‘s Daniela Melchior, admonishes Dalton for sending them so many new customers. He’s pretty pleased with his handywork.

Much like the original, Dalton find himself in the middle of real estate scheme orchestrated by a wealthy douchebag, in this case Ben Brandt, played with villainous zeal by Billy Magnussen. Brandt’s goons run roughshod over the people who Dalton is starting to see as friends, until he’s forced to step in and start fighting for more than just money. Conor McGregor has an absolutely nutty role as Brandt’s heavy, Knox, an unchained wildman who we first meet as he torches an entire marketplace just to get one guy’s shirt.

Opening as a streaming exclusive was probably for the best, even though there was a push by fans (including yours truly) to give it a theatrical release. But having seen it for myself, the budget and VFX are definitely better for a small-screen effort than one meant for theaters. While you won’t notice this during the hand-to-hand combat, you really see it when the plot expands to shootouts and boat chases. They just aren’t that convincing.

But you get some really good fisticuffs from Gyllenhaal and McGregor, especially in their final showdown which is a brutal, ugly affair. As far as the amount of action goes, it’s sporadic for a while and happens in short bursts until the latter part of the film when it kicks up substantially. The violence is gritty and only occasionally ventures into the kind of insanity we saw in the classic movie. Don’t get me wrong, this one doesn’t take itself too seriously, either. “This piano is out of tune”, Dalton quips as his head is being bashed into the keys repeatedly by Knox. It’s a funny moment that perfectly captures Road House’s sense of humor. You wish there was more of it, though. Having watched the original recently, it felt like they were in this mad place detached from a sane world.  You won’t get that feeling here. It’s much too gritty for that.

Credit goes to Gyllenhaal for making the Dalton character his own. He goes to some lengths that Swayze’s would never go, and that’s a good thing.  Gyllenhaal adds some acting gravitas to a genre that doesn’t always look for it or need it, frankly, but I like what he was able to bring to some of the smaller interactions. He has good chemistry with Melchior, but strangely enough I found he had the best chemistry with McGregor. Maybe it’s that McGregor is still new to this acting thing, but I found that he brought a raw physicality that was undeniable and meshed well with Gyllenhaal, who has done his share of physically taxing, rugged films before (Southpaw comes to mind) and knows what’s up.

Look, if you go into this Road House looking for the 1989 movie then you’ll be doing yourself a disservice. But there’s a lot to like about this one. It kicks a lot of ass, and is absolutely begging to become a franchise, something the original never had the opportunity to do.

Road House streams exclusive on Prime Video on March 21st.

Road House
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-road-houseI wouldn't call myself a supporter of remaking the classic zen brawler Road House, but it didn't piss me off, either.  The original is god-tier as far as I'm concerned. It's zany, has solid fights, is imminently quotable, and features an iconic Patrick Swayze...