Road House (2024): Movie Review

muloozi Daniel
muloozi Daniel

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a bare-knuckle boxer who is “goofy, relaxed and remarkably free of facial damage” in the “scrappy and overcomplicated” Road House reboot.

Serving its customers trayfuls of bone-crunching martial arts bouts and bluesy rock’n’roll numbers, Road House earned some bad reviews when it came out in 1989, but it has since become a cult favourite. It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s a guilty pleasure that feels less guilty than it should, largely because its leading man, Patrick Swayze, seems to be taking it so seriously.

However crass and silly it gets – and, boy, does it get crass and silly – Swayze’s sincere, soulful presence suggests that maybe there’s something respectable about it, after all.

Still, even its most ardent fans would admit that there is room for improvement in terms of plot, characterisation and pretty much everything else, and so a remake that uses the back-of-an-envelope premise of “supercool bouncer beats up a bar’s most unpleasant patrons” doesn’t seem like the worst idea.

Sure enough, the new Road House, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, The Edge of Tomorrow), does improve on the original in some ways. The snag is that, like a clumsy handyman in a silent comedy, Liman can’t solve one problem without causing several more.

Take the main character, Elwood Dalton. (He has the same surname as Swayze’s character, but I assume his new first name is an in-joke derived from the Blues Brothers’ names being Jake and Elwood.)

As played by a ridiculously buff Gyllenhaal, he is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) champion whose career ended when he pummelled an opponent to death. He now haunts the seedy world of underground bare-knuckle boxing, where his reputation is enough to scare his opponents into forfeiting their fights.

Here, then, is an element that seems like a step up from the original Road House: a hero who has hit rock bottom and badly needs redemption. And yet the film doesn’t follow through on the concept.

Goofy, relaxed and remarkably free of facial damage, this Dalton always has a cheeky quip and a sleepy smile at the ready, so he is the least convincing two-fisted drifter since Tom Cruise starred in those Jack Reacher films. His horrific past is soon no more than the subject of mild gossip.

Anyway, he is tracked down by Frankie (an underused Jessica Williams), the owner of a bar in the Florida Keys which has been “terrorised” for months by its brawling, bottle-throwing clientele. She hires him to clean the place up, but doesn’t reveal the real source of her troubles. Her bar is on the very spot where a petulant villain, Brandt (Billy Magnussen), wants to build a luxury hotel; he even has one of those dioramas that evil property developers in films always have.

Again, this is an upgrade of a kind. One glaring problem with the 1989 film is that the bar is so tangential to the plot. The bad guy is so busy leaning on every other business in town that he hardly notices the roadhouse itself. The new screenplay fixes that little flaw – and then, true to form, it creates half a dozen others. Here’s one of them: the bar isn’t actually a roadhouse. Frankie runs a swanky and spacious beach bar with idyllic ocean views, rather than a rest stop on a dusty highway, and her explanation that it was named The Road House as a joke only makes matters worse.

A second flaw is that the bar – which looks immaculate, despite the months of drunk and disorderly behaviour – is constructed from wood and palm leaves, and filled with bottles of liquor. It is, in short, the most flammable building imaginable, but the film is almost over before it occurs to Brandt that some light arson might be in order.

I know, you shouldn’t expect too much coherence from a rollicking action movie, and Liman’s films aren’t known for their watertight plotting, but as Road House ambles here and there at its all-too-easy pace, the parts of it that don’t add up start to, well, add up. There’s the beautiful local doctor, Ellie (Daniela Melchior), who scolds Dalton for his violent ways, and then throws herself at him. There are Ellie’s issues with her estranged father (Joaquim de Almeida), a corrupt sheriff, which are raised but not resolved.

There are Brandt’s incarcerated father and the gangsters who have lent Brandt money, all of whom fade into the background. There’s the teenage bookshop employee (Hannah Love Lanier) who compares Dalton’s story to a Western, but then vanishes for much of the running time.

And there’s Brandt’s father’s psychotic henchman, Knox, played with cartoonish menace by a genuine UFC champion, Conor McGregor.

This tattooed man-mountain is introduced strutting through the streets stark naked, as flamboyantly diabolical as an antagonist from The Fast and The Furious series – Jasons Statham and Momoa were clearly a big influence. But when he eventually strides into the bar wielding a golf club, his first fight with Dalton just sort of… fizzles out.

Watching this mindless yet overcomplicated film feels like sitting in on a script meeting at which the writers throw around ideas for characters, scenes and subplots but don’t get around to developing any of them. A boat chase? Worth a try. A car crash? Cool! Some bar staff for Dalton to mentor? We’ll fill in the details later. None of the various bits and pieces fulfils its potential, and, fatally, that includes the underwhelming action set pieces.

Apart from the blood-spattered climactic Dalton vs Knox punch-up, they simply aren’t as skilfully choreographed and shot as those in the original Road House, 35 years ago.

It’s not that the film isn’t watchable. It has its share of fun sequences and decent lines, and Gyllenhaal has plenty of puppy-dog charm. But it’s so scrappy that you can never quite work out why it was made, or which tone it was meant to have, or how Liman and his team thought they could transcend the source material.

Like the first Road House, it’s a guilty pleasure, but it’s not as pleasurable as it should be.

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