‘Road House’ review: Jake Gyllenhaal packs punches in Amazon remake of 80s cult classic

(NEXSTAR) — While "Road House," released in 1989 and starring the late Patrick Swayze, has become a cult classic over time, it's never been regarded as a "great" film. In fact, the Rowdy Herrington-directed action movie has often been considered "so bad it's good," though in his 1989 review Roger Ebert said it "exists right on the edge between the 'good-bad movie' and the merely bad."

Strangely enough, its lack of renown is why it warrants a remake — and why so much of "Road House" (2024), which premieres on Prime Video on Thursday, succeeds.

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For his "reimagining" of the story, director Doug Liman ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith," "Edge of Tomorrow") keeps most threads from the original film while altering some of what doesn't work in the campy neo-Western.

For starters, Liman's film relocates the story from small-town Missouri to the Florida Keys, an aesthetic choice that feels in line with the 80s-ness of the original (there's also something a little "Miami Vice" about it) while opening up new location-specific possibilities, including speedboat chases, yacht shootouts, and one hungry crocodile.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Dalton in Amazon MGM Studios' "Road House" (Courtesy of Amazon/MGM Studios)

When we meet former UFC fighter Dalton (Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal), he's no longer fighting professionally and is flirting with the idea of ending of his life. This might seem heavier than you're expecting but Dalton's brief low moment is well-calibrated. Swayze's Dalton was also haunted by his past mistakes but that film's lighter atmosphere isn't conducive to too much emotionality. Since Liman's film, with a script by Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry, streamlines some of the original "Road House" campiness, there's some atmospheric wiggle room for Gyllenhaal's Dalton to show us what he's feeling and to sit in it.

Dalton's fortune is changed, however, after he's scouted to become the bouncer at The Road House, a troubled tropic-themed watering hole where live bands perform behind cages for their own safety. In Herrington's movie, patron rowdiness is dialed up to 100% — which is both fun to watch and also gives that film a certain unreality that makes some of its script shortcomings passable. But Liman's "Road House" tempers some of the customer violence, which helps ground the story a little more but equally makes these portions of the film much less memorable.

Gyllenhaal's Dalton is backed up by Road House owner Frankie (Jessica Williams, "Fantastic Beasts" films, "The Daily Show") and bar employee Billy (Lukas Gage, "The White Lotus"), who begin learning Dalton's tricks for dealing with rowdy patrons — but one local isn't keen on a Road House takeover.

Area crime boss Ben Brandt (Billy Magnussen, "No Time to Die") has deep pockets and tight connections and he will stop at nothing — including murder — to get rid of Dalton. Played with pompous charisma by Magnussen ("No Time to Die"), whose penchant for playing charismatic rich jerks is unrivaled (see "Ingrid Goes West"), Brandt's electric presence is one of the film's many delights. Not to forget another of the film's villains who nearly steals the show: the unexpectedly fun hulking Irish assassin Knox, played by UFC champ Conor McGregor. Any time Knox is in a scene, the over-the-top action locks in perfectly. "Road House" marks the 35 year-old boxer's film debut and his swaggering performance hints that he could have a future film career.

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One element that didn't work in the original film — the romance between Dalton (Swayze) and "Doc" (Kelly Lynch) also falls flat here, unfortunately. In both films, Dalton and Doc engage in a type of instalove, where the audience isn't privy to too much of the couple getting to know each other and growing closer. But it becomes more of a problem in the 2024 version, as female lead Daniela Melchior ("Fast X," "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3") delivers a slightly unexpressive and serious performance.

While there are a few improvements to Doc's backstory in the script — and Doc is given a lot more to do — Melchior seems ill-equipped to make the already abbreviated romance even slightly believable. It's not entirely upon her shoulders, however. Gyllenhaal's cheekiness is misplaced next to Melchior's grounded stoicism and the two often feel like they're in different movies.

This unconvincing romance, however, is perhaps the sole element that really doesn't work with the story's tonal shift. To Liman and the screenwriters' credit, the shift from cartoonish action to drama-with-moments-of-heightened-action feels modern and fresh without completely eschewing the spirit of the original film. Those behind this film clearly have affection for the original but it's not the religious devotion to source material that has killed too many remakes to count.

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All of this isn't to say that the new "Road House" is a "serious" movie. It's not. It's fun and well-made and there's definitely a case to be made that it would have done well in theaters — especially considering March has been pretty spare on new releases. While "Road House" wouldn't have dethroned "Dune: Part Two," it very easily could have been a solid second-place hit for the current post-awards season/pre-summer blockbuster cinemascape.

The movie's theatrical potential remains a source of contention among its director, who in January said he would boycott its premiere at SXSW after claiming Amazon chose to place it on streaming instead of on the big screen. Despite contrary reports, including Gyllenhaal himself saying "Amazon was always clear it was streaming," Liman ultimately attended SXSW in Austin last week, though he didn't participate in the film's panel.

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 08: (L-R) Billy Magnussen, Post Malone, Jessica Williams and Lukas Gage speak onstage during the "Road House" World Premiere during SXSW at The Paramount Theater on March 08, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images for Amazon MGM Studios)

With a runtime of just 2 hours, "Road House" is a breezy watch and its soft R-rating for language and violence also means it could be a good family-with-older-kids movie night pick. While the new "Road House" isn't a remake in the vein of Luca Guadagnino's subversive and beautiful "Suspiria," which is very nearly a completely different film, it's a worthwhile reinvention that works.

Oh, also, almost forgot to mention: Post Malone is in this.

Yes, that Post Malone.

SCORE: ★★★☆☆

"Road House" (2024) premieres on Prime Video Thursday, March 21. And in case you're wanting to do a comparison watch, "Road House" (1989) is currently streamable with Prime Video, Max and Showtime subscriptions.

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