‘Road House’ Review: Jake Gyllenhaal Hits Hard in Rambunctious Reimagining of an ’80s Classic

The cast of the new “Road House” remake took the stage for a lively Q&A at the Paramount Theater in Austin to open the 2024 SXSW Film & TV Festival. They thanked their fearless director, Doug Liman, so much that one would swear Liman could pop on-stage at any moment to receive his flowers. But the “Edge of Tomorrow” helmer stayed seated in a sold-out crowd of macho-loving fans as an air of mystery filled the room.

Liman had protested the premiere of his newest film, and up until the screening had said he wasn’t going to be there at all. In what has become a public battle with Amazon MGM Studios, the director swore he wouldn’t attend the film’s SXSW screening because he believed the tentpole movie should go directly to theaters. Instead, Amazon will release it to its streaming platform on March 21, 2024, leaving Liman’s wishes unresolved.

Thunderous applause filled the room indeed, as the rowdy South by Southwest crowd seemed to have as much fun as some of the unruly patrons found on-screen in the new “Road House,” a reimagining of the 1989 Patrick Swayze feature. After years of playing supporting roles and a stellar heartthrob turn in the classic “Dirty Dancing,” the late Swayze chose to go a different route by showcasing his Taekwondo skills in Rowdy Herrington’s 1989 actioner.

Costarring Sam Elliot, Kelly Lynch and Ben Gazzara, Swayze led the all-star cast as Dalton, a Missouri bar bouncer protecting customers from getting too disorderly while fending off the advances of a corrupt business magnate.

The premise of “Road House” has always seemed a bit nonconformist to some. After a recent rewatch, the antics plaguing the roadhouse bar within the original film, seen through a modern lens, are plagued with outdated and problematic behaviors. This includes a monetary exchange where one man is dared to kiss a woman’s breasts, but he fondles them instead without paying.

The ick factor doesn’t stop there, as the hair and wardrobe choices associated with 1989’s “Road House” are among those that even nostalgia would like to forget. Not to mention that bartenders deal drugs in the open for management to witness and a homoerotic sequence where a shirtless Dalton practices the art of tai chi as several men look on in amazement.

The 1980s were filled with rough-and-tumble flicks where “men were men,” and Dalton was the only kick-ass bouncer in town keeping things in order. Liman’s take on “Road House” is fitted with a brand new cast and location. A glorified muscle-bound extravaganza, the film keeps some of its predecessor’s ego and bravado, set to a Western theme, but updates some troublesome sequences for a more woke audience.

Jake Gyllenhaal takes on the Dalton role with confidence and vigor as the character’s profile is updated to that of a former UFC middleweight fighter. Instead of a Missouri backdrop, the jacked Gyllenhaal finds himself defending the Florida Keys as a bouncer working at a picturesque beach bar called The Road House, owned by Frankie (Jessica Williams), who inherited it from her deceased uncle.

The Road House is the sort of place where Ernest Hemingway once wet his whistle. Still, paradise is paved with misfortune as Dalton runs into showdown after showdown opposing a criminal element who has used the bar to conduct their illegal business enterprise.

It’s an enterprise run by Ben Brandt (Billy Magnussen), a wealthy yet smarmy criminal with the corrupt police at his beck and call due to his imprisoned father’s influence. When Dalton takes on Ben’s goons at The Road House, his father calls in the maniacal, eccentric Knox (UFC champion Conor McGregor). Dalton seems to have met his match in Knox just as the former begins a romantic entanglement with a doctor (Daniela Melchior) who has secrets of her own.

To say that 2024’s “Road House” is an improvement over its predecessor is an understatement. Though the original has its charm, in a 1980s classic sort of fashion, this remake expands its unhinged characters to include a mighty talented cast befitting the large budget Liman and company enjoyed. It might take an hour into the film for McGregor to show up as the naked and ruthless Knox, but it’s worth the wait to see him wreak havoc upon everything Dalton has built.

The film takes a turn towards making fun of itself, never buying into the premise in a serious way. Several analogies to classic Western tales are inferred, including the lone outsider who strolls into town to clean up the messy and destructive saloon. That’s Dalton’s purpose in “Road House” and it’s executed in true Doug Liman style, including extreme violence, quick cuts, close-ups of bloody Gyllenhaal and McGregor, and an explosion or two.

Gyllenhaal proves to be a formidable action star, but the chemistry opposite Melchior is sorely lacking. In some sequences, the actor has more of a connection with Magnussen, McGregor or Williams, owing much to the importance of the ensemble cast. Lukas Gage, Darren Barnet, Post Malone, J.D. Pardo, B.K. Cannon and Joaquim de Almeida are having a blast supporting a rambunctious thrill ride, yet many of them disappear midway through the film with little explanation given.

Like the 1989 original, “Road House” lifts Dalton up to be a complicated good guy in a sea of mysterious happenings. Nightmares of the former UFC star’s past give context to how he ended up in Florida, but the weight of his history doesn’t amount to much considering his present circumstances. Gyllenhaal’s Dalton might not be the hero that rides off into the sunset at the end of the movie, but in true Western manner, Liman keeps the audience guessing until the final battle.

Every good guy needs an equally chilling bad guy for the whole movie to work, and that’s precisely what McGregor presents with a smile from ear to ear in every scene as he’s bashing skulls to a pulp. Animated and wild, Knox is the opponent Dalton has been looking to fight all of his life and the movie displays a match made in heaven for these two mighty foes.

“Road House” is a mixed bag of blockbuster punches and quirky set pieces that give way to hyper-masculinity in the modern world. The ensemble understands the type of cartoonish movie they are in and the audience can easily follow along, even when it’s unclear what illegal activities are being discussed at any given moment. Doug Liman may not have been granted a theatrical release, but this remake fights for the right to be seen on any size screen available.

Amazon MGM Studios will release “Road House” on March 21.

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