Road House is Fun, But Embodies the Worst of Modern Hollywood

Doug Liman’s remake of the 1989 classic falls victim to a ruthless studio system that squeezes art for cash.

Prime Video
Inverse Reviews

It’s uncertain whether or not a remake of Road House was necessary, but Doug Liman’s retelling of the 1989 Patrick Swayze cult classic is surprisingly instructive. It captures, for better and worse, everything about the current era of Hollywood filmmaking, resulting in a movie that’s often riotously funny, but ends up lacking in every way that the original succeeded — including being a completed production ready for release.

The 2024 Road House follows Jake Gyllenhaal’s Elwood Dalton, a former UFC fighter and current underground brawler, who ends up hired by Florida small-business-owner Frankie (Jessica Williams) to keep order at her beachside bar. It begins with mid-fight POV shots belonging to unimportant side characters who never show up again (one of whom is played by rapper Post Malone), and while it’s strange to open a film by anchoring the audience in a perspective that doesn’t matter, this creates a sense of chaos as the camera bobs, and weaves, and falls off its axis.

Almost immediately, Gyllenhaal’s Dalton — who inexplicably recalls his past in the form of sports broadcasts, rather than first-person memories — comes off as a terrifying sociopath, offering wide-eyed stares and snappy, snarky quips even as a man plunges a knife into his kidney. Dalton doesn’t seem to care about much. Where Swayze created mystery through silence, Gyllenhaal yammers constantly but reveals no interiority in the process. However, the money Frankie offers him is enough for him to take a trip to the Florida Keys, where he joins as the head bouncer at her thatch-roofed roadhouse (simply called “The Road House,” an apparent joke that doesn’t land despite Frankie’s attempts to explain it).

Come nightfall, a violent biker gang descends upon the establishment, and Dalton dispenses with them with ruthless efficiency. One of these goons, played meekly by Arturo Castro, makes constant observations about Dalton, and becomes the de facto translator for how Liman hopes we’ll see this version of the character: as a surprisingly polite, but eventually terrifying presence who’ll break your bones, before driving you to the hospital afterward. Dalton’s hilarious bedside manner carries much of the movie, even when it delves into the head-scratchingly dull mechanics of a plot that rightly took a back seat in the original. It remains thoroughly uninteresting here as well, despite this additional focus. The “why” of these hoodlums attacking the bar (and the motivations of their wealthy, spoiled-brat boss, played by Billy Magnussen) aren’t nearly as important as the dynamics they create by doing so, forcing Dalton to consider how much of himself he wants to pour into protecting this place with his fists.

Gyllenhaal is a livewire in the role, and a far cry from Swayze’s introspective philosopher-fighter who ventured to Missouri and wrote sonnets with his silence. Liman, likely realizing that trying to recreate the immaculate vibes of Rowdy Herrington’s original, goes for broke with an entirely different kind of movie (co-written by Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry), leaving only superficial commonalities between them: a guy named Dalton protecting a bar. Gone are Herrington’s careful compositions and Swayze’s sweaty, sadboi martial arts; instead Gyllenhaal is a bare-knuckle brawler, which Liman and cinematographer Henry Braham capture with a roving camera that leaps and vibrates alongside every punch and kick. Wide lenses and lengthy takes accentuate these movements, a trick of staging borrowed from a number of accomplished Southeast Asian martial arts movies. However, the hand-to-hand action is about all that works about the new Road House. There’s only so long that Gyllenhaal’s Marvel-esque detachment can be funny before the story starts to lose steam.

A notable line from the original re-appears in this version, with Dalton telling local doctor and love interest Ellie (Daniela Melchior) that “no one ever wins a fight.” But where it belonged in the more introspective original — a film in which the call to violence felt like a curse — it feels entirely out of place in a movie where the action scenes are often cheer-out-loud fun.

What little the remake borrows from its predecessor immediately falls apart. Dalton’s flimsy romantic chemistry with Ellie doesn’t hold a candle to the steamy dynamic between Swayze and Kelly Lynch, in part because it isn’t given much screen time to develop, though the movie also cuts away from anything as salacious as a kiss (let alone a sex scene). The original is one of the steamiest movies ever made; Swayze’s brooding presence alone does the trick, as does Sam Elliott as Dalton’s mentor (a homoerotic relationship that doesn’t exist in the remake). The new version, on the other hand, is practically ascetic, hammering home just how sexless modern Hollywood has become.

If there’s any real passion to be found, it arrives in the form of the movie’s late-in-the-game villain, a brutish henchman named Knox, played by actual UFC competitor Conor McGregor, who embodies the character with the cartoonish swagger of one of his fight promos, and delivers every line with a psychotic grin. Knox lights the screen ablaze, delivering pun after pun while killing people with ease and creativity, setting up an inevitable collision between him and Dalton that’s exciting in its physical promise. This is, however, its only promise; the two characters have no real perspectives that can clash, nor do they have any real personal gripe, since they both fight other people’s battles.

UFC competitor Conor McGregor is the movie’s standout performance.

Prime Video

By the time this climactic standoff arrives, Road House begins unfolding in strange and uncanny ways. You can practically time the moment the movie begins falling apart; it’s marked by a half-rendered CGI explosion and a sudden cut to black, as if what’s being presented is still a work-in-progress. Not only is the remake littered with mismatched ADR — which a lawsuit from the original movie’s writer, R. Lance Hill, alleges was A.I. assisted — but its third act doesn’t appear to have enough footage to create completed sequences. It’s baffling to watch, and seems to stem from Amazon’s rush to get the movie done (despite the recent actors’ and writers’ strikes) in order to prevent the story rights from reverting to Hill. Between this contractually-motivated rush, and Liman’s reported dissatisfaction that the film was announced as a streaming release, rather than theatrical, the 2024 Road House becomes a de facto symbol of the modern studio pipeline, which can take even the most fun ideas and grind them through a meat processor if it means screwing over artists and saving a few extra bucks.

The resultant movie not only lacks the thoughtfulness of the original, but its sense of time and place — the crowd and even the live music at Frankie’s Road House changes rapidly from night to night — and even the few things that work end up falling victim to what feels like a cinematic scam. Gyllenhaal is funny, until he begins appearing in hastily cobbled-together shots that defy all sense of space and rhythm. Liman imbues the action with unpredictable energy grounded in visceral impact, until the third act inexplicably devolves into a bloated, disconnected spectacle drowning in CGI. And the movie as a whole is amusing until it quite simply stops being a movie, and transforms into an ugly facsimile of one: aimed not at entertainment, but at intellectual property retention at all costs.

Road House premiered at SXSW on March 8. It releases on Prime Video on March 21.

Related Tags