SXSW Review: Road House

Doug Liman’s new Road House remake isn’t as much of a bad movie as it is a baffling one, an inexplicable instance of an existing property revised past the point of recognition. Why would you want to remake and modernize a film so embedded in its specific time and aesthetic? Why not just do what filmmakers have done since the beginning of time: rip it off, slip in a couple of sly winks, and call it an homage? The answer, I guess, is that we’re in the thick of the IP era, where the only way to alleviate the persistent risk of moviemaking is to attach it to something people know — even if you remove all traces of what made it memorable to begin with.

What’s especially frustrating is if they’d had the stones to really and truly remake Road House, they picked the right guy for the job. Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t precisely the same kind of actor as Patrick Swayze, but he has a similar joy of performance, and a way of commanding the attention of the camera, even when he’s perfectly still. He gets a movie-star entrance here, pulling off a hoodie after stepping into the ring of a bare-knuckle fighting club, and some funny bits of initial business with Jessica Williams, stepping into Kevin Tighe’s shoes as the bar owner looking to hire a super-bouncer.

That’s not the only alteration of note; new screenwriters Anthony Bagarozzi and Chuck Mondry change Dalton’s first name (“Elwood,” and god how I wish I was making that up), shift the setting from small-town Missouri to the Florida Keys, and change the name of the titular establishment. Here, we get a fleeting glimpse of a Double Deuce restaurant (WINK WINK), but the Road House itself is called the Road House, a failed bit that ends up playing like “Who’s On First” with a concussion. (Dalton also has to share an affectionate camaraderie with a precocious tween, and god how I wish I was making that up too.)

Liman, who typically at least knows how to pace a picture (his credits include The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Go) really lets the tempo slack once Dalton arrives at the Road House; the middle stretch bogs down into endless scenes of bands playing while random fights break out. Yes, there’s too much of that for even a Road House remake — it seems to be the one and only thing Liman decided to faithfully recreate, a dubious choice.

The good: the fight scenes often have a wild comic ingenuity to them, bordering on slapstick (and sometimes crossing the line). Dalton fights like the Waco Kid shoots in Blazing Saddles — so fast, so accurate, that it becomes comic. (Also, the abject stupidity of every single henchman is a good runner.) And Liman is doing some other clever things in those fights, which are messily (so, accurately) choreographed, and then shot in long, panning takes to create a continuity of action. There’s one great death scene that’s teed up fair and square, but still hilariously surprising. And however clumsily it arrives there, the last big fight indisputably delivers.

The primary problem with Road House 2.0 is the question of logic, and the dubious application of it. It makes sense that a disgraced UFC fighter would wind up taking a job as a bouncer-for-hire; it makes far less sense that a Zen-spouting, Mercedes-driving, professional “cooler” with a degree in philosophy would even exist, much less would end up in a nowhere bar in Missouri. It makes sense that a rich kid would hire a tough biker gang to rough up the patrons of a bar sitting on a plot of land they’d like to buy and develop; it makes less sense that a grizzled rich baddie would send his toughs in to smash up the town bar every night simply as an evil flex. The beauty of Road House was that it didn’t make any sense — as Roger Ebert wrote, it’s “the kind of movie that leaves reality so far behind that you have to accept it on its own terms.” The only sense that mattered was what got us from one set piece, one brawl, one nonsensical quip to the next. What we have here is a script that fixes things that weren’t broken, correcting features instead of bugs.

There are other miscalculations. Ben Gazzara, as the aforementioned grizzled rich baddie, is replaced by Billy Magnussen’s Brandt, a whiny failson who’s neither scary nor threatening, but merely annoying (it’s John Wick 4 all over again). He’s degrees of magnitude less obnoxious than Conor McGregor, who’s mugging and preening with such oversized self-satisfaction that you want to peel him off the lens. But ultimately, the biggest mistake is taking a delightfully lunk-headed, coked-out late-‘80s bruiser and methodically excising all of its quirks and eccentricities — flattening it into just another 2020s action flick. It’s entertaining enough, I guess, if you haven’t seen the original. But if you’re not going to appeal to an audience that knows and loves the original Road House, why bother remaking it at all?

“Road House” premieres March 21 on Amazon Prime.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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