Credit: Laura Radford/Prime Video
by Matt Lynch Featured Film Streaming Scene

Road House — Doug Liman

March 21, 2024

Rowdy Herrington’s 1989 opus Road House is, in the unironic view of this writer, a bona fide classic and one of the best American films of its decade. Combining the collectivist/community spirit of the best Howard Hawks adventures with the rambunctious comic badassery of Hal Needham’s Burt Reynolds movies, it’s a genuine blue-collar epic, and star Patrick Swayze’s philosophizing bouncer Dalton (in Swayze’s second best performance after Point Break) is one of the most indelible characters in ’80s cinema. Road House has been legitimately claimed by modern cinephiles, which makes it all the more surprising (or perhaps inevitable) that someone would attempt to remake it. But it’s not entirely bad news. 2024’s Road House is less a remake than merely a superficially similar setup, adjacent to the original rather than beholden to it. On the other hand, its pleasures are disastrously overshadowed by poor direction and deployment of special effects.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Elwood Dalton, a very down-on-his-luck bottom-rung MMA fighter who was once a championship contender. A fight gone wrong put an end to that, though, so he’s naturally bouncing through the underground circuit for cash to scrape by. One night he gets a visit from Frankie (Jessica Williams), who owns a bar in the Florida Keys called the Road House (hardly as colorful as the original’s Double Deuce, but let’s do our best to try to forget those qualms for now), which is apparently beset by troublemakers and ne’er do wells, despite having been a former watering hole for Ernest Hemingway.

Let’s start with the positives. Gyllenhaal is doing terrific work here. Simply copying the original film’s Dalton would never have worked; the comparison would be devastating. Shifting this Dalton from Swayze’s zenned-out philosopher to a closeted psychopath riddled with PTSD is a genius move, and Gyllenhaal plays him with a sincere relish for violence. Push him too far, and he’ll hurt people… and he’ll enjoy it. Actual MMA fighter Conor McGregor shows up midway through as a bad guy ringer to actually provide a physical foil for Elwood, and he’s a reasonably charismatic presence, even as we know he’s not here for his acting abilities. The rest of the cast acquit themselves well in generally thankless roles, and it’s especially nice when stalwart character actor Joaquim de Almeida shows up as a crooked cop.

Now for the troubles. Despite the nice cast, there’s no real sense of a community here, just a sort of flavorless set of background players. The film never really shows how livelihoods seem likely to be disrupted by the removal of a shitty bar, and in fact the two nicest folks in the town (aforementioned daddy-daughter booksellers) would probably benefit from the influx of tourists. So all that’s left is a villain who’s resorting to violence for no really apparent reason other than that because the script says so — sort of the Scooby-Doo tactic of hostile real-estate.

Ok, granted, that’s not a huge issue in a movie about a guy who fights in bars. What is a huge issue is that director Doug Liman has no idea how to stage action, and so he’s slathered the fights in digital VFX in order to get a bunch of goofy shots with faux somersaulting cameras and junk like that. Tons of hidden digital wipes and cuts obscure that the fights have been cobbled together in post. Even more egregiously, it’s totally apparent that CGI has been deployed to sell the hits. On multiple occasions it’s unmistakable that performers’ arms and legs have been digitally extended it order to make it look like contact is being made. It’s sloppy, it looks terrible, it’s totally unnecessary. Hire actors that can fight and use trained stunt performers if you’re going to make a barfight movie. It’s shameful, and it outright ruins the movie. Road House ’24 remains enjoyable in spurts and even retains just enough of the original’s spirit to make the entire affair palatable, but ultimately the movie had one job, and in that it fails spectacularly.

DIRECTOR: Doug Liman;  CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Daniela Melchior, Billy Magnussen, Conor McGregor, Jessica Williams;  DISTRIBUTOR: Amazon MGM Studios;  STREAMING: March 21;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 54 min.