The Movie Waffler New Release Review - ROAD HOUSE | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - ROAD HOUSE

Road House review
A former UFC fighter takes a job as head bouncer at a rowdy Florida bar.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Doug Liman

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Daniela Melchior, Billy Magnussen, Jessica Williams, Joaquim de Almeida, Conor McGregor, Lukas Gage

Road House poster

In the mid 1980s Hollywood seized upon a formula for success: make an Elvis movie but ditch the songs. It's a simple formula: a charismatic male lead is thrown into a dramatic situation based around his job, where he juggles a male adversary and a female love interest. Most of them starred Tom Cruise, for few were better equipped to replicate Elvis's charm. Cocktail: Elvis becomes a barman. Top Gun: Elvis joins the air force. Days of Thunder: Elvis is a Nascar racer. But perhaps the best Elvis movie of the era starred Patrick Swayze. No, not Dirty Dancing, which is also very much an Elvis movie, but 1989's Road House, in which Elvis is a bouncer.

Road House review

Much of the nostalgia for '80s Hollywood is unwarranted and largely based around Gen-Xers first seeing a slew of iconic movies at an age when they hadn't yet developed any critical faculties. But the one thing you can say in '80s Hollywood's favour is that it knew how to nail a formula, how to tell a simple story without too much fat. 1989's Road House is roughly the same length as Doug Liman's remake and yet it whizzes by in comparison. It knows exactly what sort of entertainment its six-pack swilling Friday night audience is after and delivers it in spades. To quote the infamously on-point tagline of '80s slasher Pieces, "It's exactly what you think it is."

Liman's Road House doesn't really know what it is, probably because the Hollywood of 2024 doesn't know what it's audience wants now that Joe Sixpack has finally turned his back on superhero movies. It initially leans into the Elvis vibes by having its action play out in sunny Florida, and there are more than a few nods to the aforementioned Cocktail, including a needle drop of The Beach Boys' 'Kokomo' (a song I thought was the definition of cheese as a kid in 1988 but which now warms my aging heart). But then at a certain point it becomes a Charles Bronson movie, with some mean-spirited nastiness that jars with the sunny setting and wisecrack laden script.

Road House review

The difference between the 1989 film and its 2024 incarnation is visually represented by their leading men's torsos. Swayze's Dalton was lean but ripped, with decidedly chiselled abs, while Jake Gyllenhaal's update is more bulk and less focussed definition. Where Swayze's workout regime was clearly designed to make him look good, Gyllenhaal's would appear to have been more geared towards getting big, and if that isn't a metaphor for the contrast between the Hollywood of the past and today's version...

Both movies have essentially the same plot: Dalton is hired to become the head bouncer at a rowdy roadhouse only to find he's up against forces more powerful than a bunch of knife-wielding drunks, and romances a local doctor in the process. But in this version that simple premise becomes muddled and overcooked. Some of the original's supporting characters have been erased. The prominent role of bluesman Jeff Healey has been replaced by a series of anonymous acts performing behind chicken wire at the titular venue. Gone too are the seductress figure played by Julie Michaels and Dalton's old coot landlord. In their place are a bookstore owner and his precocious daughter, who are introduced at the start only to be ultimately dismissed as cheap fodder for a final act revenge plot (making these characters black, as is Jessica Williams' road house owner, and giving Dalton a Latina love interest played by Daniela Melchior, sets the film up for avoidable white saviour accusations). Ben Gazzara's memorable villain is replaced of course by a much younger actor in Billy Magnussen, who has the necessary punchable face but whose viking physique makes his snivelling shtick hard to swallow. Magnussen towers over both Gyllenhaal and the main henchman played by Conor McGregor. The notorious MMA fighter delivers a performance that is both objectively terrible and supremely entertaining. I'd complain about the character being an offensive Irish stereotype were McGregor not himself a real life offensive Irish stereotype. A new addition in this version is a corrupt local sheriff (Joaquim de Almeida), a character that the movie can't figure out what to do with and who ultimately just gets in the way of the central beef. Unlike Swayze and Kelly Lynch, who smouldered on screen together, there's a notable absence of chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Melchior, as though the actors are all too aware of the inevitable online age gap discourse.

Road House review

Much of the fun of the original came from the anarchic nature of the bar fights, which were no more sophisticated than those found in a 1930s b-western but which had a raw, bone-crunching verisimilitude. They were the sort of messy brawls you could imagine stumbling across in small town America, where blokes get drunk on a six pack of those pocket-sized cans they drink over there. In this version the fights are a different kind of messy, in that you can't see what's happening most of the time because the camerawork and editing are over-compensating. Why hire an actual MMA fighter if you're not going to let the audience see his moves?

Road House is on Prime Video from March 21st.

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