Road House Review | This Ain’t Kokomo

by Andrew Parker

Road House, a remake of an 80s testosterone fuelled action picture that has maintained cult status for decades, is dumb as a box of rocks, and I’m positive that fans of the original wouldn’t want it any other way. Packed to bursting with ludicrous amounts of beat downs, icy stares, and over the top characters, director Doug Liman’s take on Road House is assuredly in on the joke at hand, which is recognizing the futility of a doing a straight-up rebooting of a film that – through sheer, dumb, blind luck – managed to get everything right the first time. Subbing in knowing humour for dunderheaded straight-faced tough guy posturing and imbuing a healthy sense of style to go along with the grime and grit, Road House carves its own b-movie path, but it’s still best viewed alongside likeminded friends with copious amounts of snacks and drinks.

The general plot outline of director Rowdy Herrington’s original Road House remains the backbone for Liman’s version: a laid back badass loner breezes into a seemingly lawless town to protect a local watering hole from a bunch of violent thugs hired by a local rich guy to run the owners out of town so they can build some posh resort for wealthy vacationers. The badass in this version is disgraced former MMA fighter Dalton (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose fall from grace has been so swift and painful that he lives out of his car and ekes out a living by participating in underground bar fights. He’s approached on one particularly brutal night by Frankie (Jessica Williams), the owner of a ramshackle bar in the Florida Keys simply known as The Road House. She begs Dalton to come down and help keep the peace among the increasingly violent clientele that comes in every night. Dalton soon realizes that a lot of the pushy drunks are working under the employ of the evil Ben Brandt (Billy Magnussen), a rich kid who hangs out on his yacht all day who’s desperate to claim the land The Road House sits upon.

So the concept is basically the same, with a few tweaks here and there, but the overall tone of Road House has been changed into something different and downright endearing. While the original had a certain amount of meat-headed charm to it simply by taking itself more seriously than any film featuring lines of dialogue as golden as “pain don’t hurt” should ever think about doing, this Road House is a lot punchier in the verbal sparring department. Some might see it as treasonous, but the script from Anthony Bagarozzi (who worked on the equally tough and silly thriller The Nice Guys) and Chuck Mondry allows everyone relax and have some fun. Road House manages to walk a fine line between sincerity and sensationalism, and it all comes together wonderfully.

A big reason for the film’s overall success is the unlikely perfect casting of Gyllenhaal as a hero trying to atone for years of self-loathing and being a loudmouthed jerk. Gyllenhaal imbues Dalton with a disarming amount of warmth, empathy, and good will towards the people in this small town that are getting stepped on by the villains. Gyllenhaal’s performance effortlessly wins the viewer over, and from seeing him in films like Prince of Persia and Southpaw, it’s a given that he’s physically up to the task of kicking a lotta wholesale ass, but the script also gives the character a razor sharp, sarcastic wit. While deadpan sarcasm isn’t everyone’s speed when it comes to comedy (and it might not be in a remake of film known for just being deadpan serious to the point of being funny already), Gyllenhaal leans hard into the ridiculous and campy nature of Liman’s work without foregoing a genuine emotional base for the viewer to care about. He looks like he’s having the time of his life playing in Liman’s sun drenched, blood soaked sandbox.

Road House also gives Gyllenhaal plenty of game supporting cast members willing to the the straight faces on the receiving end of Dalton’s smirks and slaps. B.K. Cannon and Lukas Gage add a nice amount of warmth and local colour as a pair of bartenders who’re thrilled to have Dalton around. Daniela Melchior has some great moments Gyllenhaal’s love interest, a local nurse who appreciates Dalton’s efforts but also resents the fact that his presence in town makes her job harder. Notable character actor Joaquim de Almeida lays the campy menace on thick as a crooked local sheriff who calls himself Big Dick. Hannah Lanier adds even more warmth and a sense of youthful enthusiasm as a book store employee that quickly befriends Dalton. Arturo Castro gets some big laughs as a member of the goon squad who’s unusually polite and cowardly. Magnussen further establishes himself as a go to player when it comes to casting a character with a hyper-inflated sense of self, a bottomless bank account, and a vicious streak. And MMA legend Conor McGregor gets a chance to show off a bit as an unhinged, psychopathic goon hired by the baddies to come in when all else has failed. McGregor isn’t much of an actor (yet, at least), but if you’re going to hire him to do anything, this is what you hire him for.

The cast and script are alive with a lot of colourful things to say and do, and Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, Go, The Bourne Identity) does a fine job of casting it all among the sandy beaches, rolling waves, and blinding sunshine of the Florida Keys. Visually, Liman has crafted the most visually stunning film of his career, with even the slower moments of character building making a major impression, with an oceanside date between Gyllenhaal and Melchior’s characters looking like a scene out of a much better (or at least more serious) movie. Road House also does a nice job of visually constructing a community that would be a lovely place to live if everything wasn’t so irredeemably broken by a handful of people who don’t know how nice they already have it. It’s easy to see why so many people choose to tough it out living there, while others take it for granted or seek to possess it all for themselves, an unusually strong metaphor for modern small town life everywhere in this age of urban sprawl and gentrification.

Road House doesn’t skimp on the action, with plenty of memorable brawls, chases, explosions, and whatnot, and while most of it is satisfying, Liman’s decision to film a lot of the more brutal moments in extreme close-ups sometimes hinders the impact. I think the idea here was to include some first person perspectives and a kind of kinetic flow that’s more often associated with modern Chinese and Indian action cinema, but it’s a bit of a clunky flex at times. It’s not a deal breaker, but definitely out of step. There’s also some moments of dodgy CGI that aren’t true to the spirit of the rugged original, but everything else here is so much fun that these quibbles are easy to overlook.

Look, it’s a remake of Road House. This isn’t Shakespeare or Ibsen or even Stephen King. It’s a Neo-western that’s iconic for vastly different reasons, most of them named Patrick Swayze. Road House was a marginal movie back then, and it’s also a marginal movie now, even with an actor of Gyllenhaal’s calibre. That’s not a knock against either film. They’re just movies that can be elevated to “classic” status simply through the force of sheer, unbridled, blissfully ignorant entertainment value. Some might bristle at the idea of a retro camp classic getting a make over, but when I see something done this well, it makes me wish that we only remade the stupid, silly movies instead of always dwelling on established classics. 

Road House is now available to stream on Prime Video.

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