‘Road House’ Is One Bloody-Knuckled Joy Ride of a Remake

You remember Road House, right? The 1989 movie where Patrick Swayze is a professional New York City bouncer imported to Missouri to work at the most raucous road house bar in the Show Me State? The kind of film in which the hero does tai chi, reads philosophy and coos Zen koans like “Pain don’t hurt,” and the bad guy utters bon mots like, “I used to fuck guys like you in prison?” (It was a different time.) Direct by the appropriately named Rowdy Harrington, this finely aged slice of cinematic Velveeta remains the perfect action flick to watch on basic cable at 3am, features what’s easily Swayze’s best grace-under-pressure performance, and wins the award for Best ’80s Hair in a Motion Picture in the same decade that gave us Valley Girl, Working Girl and Labyrinth.

Remaking any cult classic, much less one so associated with the mall-bangs moment of its creation, is tougher than taming a trashed crowd at closing time. You can’t just replay everyone’s favorite bits, but you’ve still gotta kiss the ring. Keep it old, yet make it new. That’s the line that Road House, Doug Liman’s redo of the epitome of cinéma du brawl, has gotta walk. And walk it is does, as staggeringly punch-drunk as it needs to. Both a great excuse to stage brutal fight scenes and relieve a more-ripped-than-usual Jake Gyllenhaal of his shirt, this modern take on yesteryear’s guilty pleasure is twice as goofy, three times as violent and a solid tribute to both its predecessor and the art of bodily harm. Only the location, the backstory and the names have changed. Everything else is the same old bloody-knuckled joy ride.

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Instead of a tony NYC nightclub, we kick off in Anywhere, USA’s underground fight club circuit, where Frankie (Jessica Williams) is looking to hire some out-of-town help. She’s been tipped off that the heavily tattooed slugger (yes, that is indeed Post Malone) wiping the floor with all comers may be the person she’s looking for. The person who attracts her attention, however, is the mystery man in the hoodie who’s just entered the makeshift ring. As soon he reveals himself, the champ throws in the towel. He ain’t going in the ring with that guy.

Because that guy is Elwood Dalton, former UFC heavyweight and current man without a fixed address. He’s never ripped anyone’s throat out, but Dalton did kill an opponent during a bout once upon a time, and now he makes his living by letting his reputation do the heavy lifting. Jake Gyllenhaal is the type of movie star who tends toward two speeds: leading man with haunted look and solid jaw, and wonderfully self-conscious eccentric. (See: Okja, Velvet Buzzsaw, parts of Ambulance, this seven-minute masterpiece.) When you’re really lucky, you get a performance that combines both, and the mix here is about a 75/25 split. The minute he wearily shows up and displays a torso that suggests he’s done hard time in a Crunch Fitness, you’re reminded why he’s someone you regularly cast as an emotionally bruised bruiser. Then, when he gets shivved in the parking lot and starts performing amateur surgery on himself, you get a quick glimpse of who we call Weird Jake. It’s a hint of what Road House 2.0’s name above the title does throughout the film — tough-guy-who’s-seen-too-much upfront, party in the back.

Frankie owns a road house down in the Florida Keys. A biker gang regularly shows up and wreaks havoc. It’s bad for business, and she’s decided that Dalton is the guy who can help her fix the problem. After a long, dark night of the soul, he takes her up on the offer. Arriving in the fictional seaside burg of Glass Key, Dalton is greeted by a young teen (Hannah Lanier) who runs the local bookstore. A stranger who’s come to clean things up and run the outlaws out of town? “Sounds like the plot of a Western,” she notes. That, or the original Road House, but: bonus points for the meta-genre acknowledgement. Sure enough, the new gunslinger in town with the jacked-up guns poking out of his sleeves gets to show the gang why things are gonna be different now. And because Dalton adheres to the golden rule — “Be nice” — he even drives them all to the hospital after he breaks their bones and gives their cocky leader (JD Pardo) a concussion.

That first stand-off in the parking lot of the road house — named Road House, because what else would you call the joint? — telegraphs the tone that Liman and Gyllenhaal want to establish. The bar’s staff ranges from a daffy bartender (B.K. Cannon) to an apprentice bouncer (Lukas Gage). A band is always playing some of sort of tropically flavored version of a blues, zydeco, gospel and/or rock staple behind a wire fence onstage. Dalton exudes the confidence of a person who understands how do maximum damage yet doesn’t jump into the fray until he has to, and even then, he escorts the gang into the parking lot. One biker, played by the movie’s designated scene-stealer Arturo Castro, keeps a dim-witted running commentary. And then, when Dalton does spring into action, its a hyperkinetic mixed-martial-arts melee that’s a blur and an adrenaline rush. You suddenly remember that Liman was the man calling the shots behind both the casual comic rapport of Swingers (1996) and the close-combat sequences in The Bourne Identity (2002). The humor is deadpan and the fights feel deadly in a way that channels a very 21st century, post-John Wick style of snap, crackle and pow.

Conor McGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Road House.’

Laura Radford/Prime Video

After Dalton meets Ellie (Daniela Melchior), a reprise of Kelly Lynch’s doctor-slash-romantic-interest from the original, Road House slips into a groove. The electric blue of Florida’s keys provide a fresh, picturesque backdrop to a lot of B movie pulp, but the rest is properly familiar. Once again, a particularly loathsome rich prick, played by a deep-in-the-douchebag-pocket Billy Magnusson, is behind all of the troublemaking. Once again, an alpha brute in the form of Knox (Conor McGregor) is brought in to take the hero down. Once again, Dalton bends over backwards to be nice, until it’s time not to be nice. Once again, we’re reminded that no one wins in a fight, except the moviegoer, who gets to satisfy an inherent bloodlust by indulging in the second-hand thrills of an epic barroom brawl in Margaritaville.


Oddly enough, the introduction of McGregor’s unstoppable terminator and genuine agent of chaos — who gets both a first-rate introduction scene and the film’s requisite naked-ass shot — gives this remake its giddy high point and signals the beginning of the end. Whether you think the third act’s prolonged mix of explosions, double crosses, hostage drama, mayhem and Cool Hand Jake finally losing his shit drags down the momentum or simply offers up a dopamine overdose is your call, because hey: Opinions vary. The climactic mano-a-mano is indeed a clash of titans, and helps the movie go out with a bang among a surprising chorus of whimpers; you get the sense that, like a number of fighters without a clear sweet-science strategy, this homage to a trashterpiece wears itself out swinging hard in the early rounds. It still packs a punch, however.

One last thing: This was the opening night selection of this year’s SXSW Film Festival, and regardless of whether you love this fest or find it to be obnoxious, it really was the perfect place to premiere this remake of an ’80s favorite. Horror, comedy and action movies tend to play to extremely overenthusiastic crowds down here, which describes Road House to a tee (re: the first category, let’s just say there’s a crocodile put on the mantle on Act One that definitely goes off later in the proceedings). It will also be one of the few times someone would be able to see this crowd-pleasing film in the manner in which it was meant to be consumed, a point that’s been one of several controversies dogging the picture and of particular consternation to its director. Doug Liman called out MGM/Amazon for punting this straight to streaming and said he was boycotting the premiere. Yet he was there last night in the audience, if not onstage basking in the post-screening glory. It’s great to think he got to experience the reaction to what he made. As for the movie’s distributors, we’re begging you: Please reconsider giving this a theatrical run. To paraphrase a wise man, don’t be too stupid to keep moviegoers from having a good time.

(Full disclosure: In 2021, Rolling Stone’s parent company, P-MRC, acquired a 50 percent stake in the SXSW festival.)