Wednesday, March 20, 2024

'Road House' (2024) Movie Review

Jake Gyllenhaal in Road House
A big part of the charm of Rowdy Harrington’s 1980 cult classic Road House is, aside from Patrick Swayze kicking all the ass and being cool as hell while doing it, how straight-faced it plays everything. From lines like, “Pain don’t hurt,” to a monster truck pancaking a small Missouri town, to a world where bar bouncers are world-renowned celebrities, it’s all presented as very serious business.


2006’s Road House 2: Last Call takes a similarly solemn approach. While I find certain pleasing bits in the movie (yes, I’m the one), it does not work as well as the OG. Doug Liman’s new Jake Gyllenhaal-starring remake, however, takes a different tack. The script by Anthony Bagarozzi (The Nice Guys) and Chuck Mondry has an obvious affection for the original, but also a clear recognition of exactly how goofy and silly it is, and of why it’s so damn fun. Which they use to solid effect. Sometimes.


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The story more or less hits all the plot beats of the source material, though it also plays like a synthesis of Road House ’89 and an ‘80s teen boner comedy where the kids have to save the rec center from an evil land developer. Gyllenhaal plays Dalton, a down-on-his-luck former UFC fighter. Frankie (Jessica Williams, Booksmart) hires him to be the bouncer at her Florida Keys bar that has been attracting the wrong element. (And no, it’s not called the Double Deuce.) This puts Dalton at odds with a slew of local hooligans all in the employ of local rich guy, Ben Brandt (Billy Magnussen, No Time To Die), who wants to build a resort on the site of the roadhouse. 


Gyllenhaal’s laconic, affable charm carries the entire movie. His Dalton is more a sad-sack schlub on a losing streak than his predecessor’s high-minded, philosophy-spouting “cooler.” Borderline suicidal when we first meet him, he only takes the job because he has no other options—and for her part, Frankie only offers it because he can fight, not because he has any applicable experience. Without being too on the nose or winking at the camera, there are moments where, usually casually, confidently confronting some goons, where all he can do is shrug, grin, and basically say, “Yeah, this movie is ridiculous, but isn’t it also a pretty good time?” 


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It's shaggy and dopey and takes its sweet time getting much of anywhere, but that’s also when Road House works best, when we’re just hanging out at the bar with Dalton and a fantastically assembled cast of supporting players. Magnusson has a blast being the over-the-top son of an imprisoned gangster running daddy’s rackets into the ground. Williams gets plenty of space to ply her comic trade. However, the goons are the highlights. Their ranks include, among others, Beau Knapp (Little Dixie), J.D. Pardo (The Contractor), Jonathan Kowalsky (Justified), Darren Barnet (Never Have I Ever) hilariously and intentionally miscast as a heavy, and Joaquim de Almeida (Fast 5) as a corrupt sheriff named Big Dick. We also get two low-key MVPs, B.K. Cannon (Why Women Kill) as, Laura, the sarcastic bartender (the Kathleen Wilhoite role from the original) with a hard-on for Dalton, and Moe (Arturo Castro, Bushwick), an inept, way-out-of-his-depth biker who wants nothing to do with all this smoke.


But there are also supporting characters that don’t work as well. Daniela Melchior (The Suicide Squad) plays the doctor love interest who somehow has even less to do than Kelly Lynch before her. They throw in an adorable add-a-kid moppet, Charlie (Hannah Love Lanier, Special Ops: Lioness), who runs a local bookstore basically on her own. She’s Dalton’s emotional anchor and exposition machine and disappears entirely from the second half of the movie when they don’t have anything else for her to do. Post Malone shows up for a sequence, but that’s all, and Lukas Gage (How to Blow Up a Pipeline) and Dominique Columbus (In the Vault) play a couple of Dalton’s apprentice bouncers, which is all the personality they’re given. The actors are all fine, they simply don’t have much to do beyond being props.


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And then there’s the much-ballyhooed acting debut of former UFC champ Connor McGregor, which is…about what one might expect. (I have significant issues with him as both a fighter and a person, but those are for a different time and place.) As an intimidating physical presence, the Irishman is a nice addition as Knox, a wild card of violence thrown into the mix halfway through. If he was just here to throw hands, that would be one thing, but he gets a lot of screen time. He’s clearly having an absolute blast, especially both times he gets to share his bare ass, but he makes Billy Magnussen look downright subtle by comparison. Outside of his swagger, they really shouldn’t let him talk as much as they do, he’s there to punch and snarl. That he does reasonably well, the rest, not so much.


Honestly, for an action movie built on dudes beating each other up, the fights are the biggest bummer of the movie. They have good fighters and the choreography itself is strong, but the way it’s filmed looks like trash. Anytime anyone throws down, there’s an unconscionable amount of muddy CGI enhancement, and not because the participants don’t know what they’re doing. (Godzilla voice: Let them fight.) Instead of filming a fistfight, Liman insists on inserting swooping, spinning cameras, awkward POV shots, and various other bits of visual trickery that are supposed to be stylistic, but only serve to undercut the impact of the violence and deaden the blows. You get excited for a big fight, we’ve been building up, there’s tension and pressure begging to be released, and…what they deliver is a crushing let down.


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The momentum also hangs up when it delves into Dalton’s backstory. Turns out he has a traumatic event in his past that haunts him and, despite being readily available to watch on the internet, the movie treats it as a big mystery, even though every character knows exactly what it is. Attempts to be earnest and emotional drag and stand in stark contrast to the rest of the movie that’s only there to have a good time. We want to see Dalton crack wise and throw hands, his past is of little interest or consequence. Don’t try to be a real movie, you’re a Road House remake.


A wildly mixed bag for sure, more often than it isn’t, Road House is pretty fun. I can’t say it’s anything more than that, but maybe that’s enough. This is a movie where a bar fight breaks out and a yahoo in the crowd yells, “Bar fight!” like a teen in a high school movie might yell, “Food fight.” The filmmakers generally know what movie they’re making and tap into much of what makes the original so entertaining. This certainly won’t have that same staying power, and it’s best not to think of the first film too much while watching this, but as far as remakes of fan-favorite action movies go, you can do a lot worse, like Point Break

UPDATE: Spurred on by the Road House remake, I went back and revisited Point Break 2015. While I didn’t hate it quite like I did on my initial viewing—primarily because some, and I emphasize the word some, of the action holds up well—it drives home how badly the filmmakers missed the point in that instance. (Sorry for the pun.)

For all its flaws and faults, and there are many, Road House 2024 clearly understands what people enjoy about the original and capitalize on that goofy fun. On the other hand, the producers of Point Break jettisoned the bromance, Keanu Reeves’ awkward charm, and the fish-out-of-water narrative that makes the original so engaging, turning in an empty, lunkheaded shell of a facsimile. But whatever, the surfing and suit-flying scenes are still pretty cool.

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