ROAD HOUSE

Producer: Joel Silver   Director: Doug Liman    Screenplay: Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry   Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Daniela Melchior, Billy Magnussen, Jessica Williams, Joaquim de Almeida, Conor McGregor, Lukas Gage, Arturo Castro, B.K. Cannon, Beau Knapp, Darren Barnet, Dominique Columbus, Bob Menery, Catfish Jean, Kevin Carroll, Travis Van Winkle, Hannah Lanier, Austin Post, Catfish Jean, Craig Ng, and Jay Hieron   Distributor: Amazon MGM Studios/Prime Video

Grade: C-

Rowdy Herrington’s 1989 “Road House” was, in a word, trash—violent grindhouse junk elevated to A-movie status by the presence of Patrick Swayze, who’d morphed into a bona fide movie star as a result of “Dirty Dancing” a couple of years earlier.  Doug Liman now offers an equally trashy remake in which the narrative absurdities and the level of violence are no less pronounced, though predictably the action is ramped up exponentially in the last reel to meet the expectations of contemporary audiences.

Jake Gyllenhaal, buffed up to a T, is the new Dalton, his first name changed from Swayze’s James to Elwood because…well, maybe scripters Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry thought the incongruity better suited their take on the character, who’s less the super-confident super-bouncer than Swayze played than a guilt-ridden has-been MMA fighter.  Sure, James Dalton was haunted by memories of having killed a man in a brawl, but it was in self-defense.  Elwood, by contrast, beat a foe—and a friend, no less—to death in the ring out of sheer fury, and he’s terrified at what he might do if enraged again.  (Unlike James, moreover, Elwood never mentions being a PhD in Philosophy, consumed by questions of morality.  Though he occasionally spouts a bit of James’s Deep Thoughts like “Nobody wins a fight,” he seems mostly just to subscribe to Bruce Banner’s admonition, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”)  No wonder that the prologue here is set at an underground fight club where Elwood’s mere appearance causes a muscled brute (Austin Post, aka Post Malone) who’s just dispatched an equally brutish foe to forfeit before the match begins; Dalton’s potentially fatal persona precedes him. 

It’s after that match that Dalton is approached by Frankie (Jessica Williams), proprietor of The Road House in Glass Key, Florida (the movie was actually shot in the Dominican Republic), to come and rid her place of the bike-riding thugs headed by preening pugilist Dell (J.D. Pardo) who have been filling it with fights for months.  What she doesn’t tell him until much later is that they’re in the employ of Ben Brandt (over-the-top Billy Magnussen), the sleazy, egomaniacal son of an incarcerated crime boss, who’s looking to acquire the property by hook or crook to demolish it and build a resort in its place.  (He’s also a drug-dealer, of course.)

When Dalton arrives by bus, a stranger in a hoodie who prefers to walk about the place rather than go by car, he’s almost immediately accosted by Charlie (Hannah Lanier), the inevitably precocious daughter of the owner of a shabby strip-mall bookstore which seems to be one of the only businesses in the town (Glass Key, it seems, is as sparse as Jasper, Missouri was in Herrington’s movie.) She casts him as the Shane-like drifter in a Western, the hero who will clean up the place and then ride off into the sunset.  

He demurs at the suggestion, but he does physically dissuade Dell and his boys from trashing the bar, though being a quirky fellow, he takes the injured (including himself, if need be) to the local ER for treatment immediately afterward.  There he meets Ellie (Daniela Melchior), the attending physician, who’s, of course, simultaneously disturbed by his methods and attracted to him.  Romance, however, becomes difficult when Dalton learns that Ellie is the daughter of the corrupt sheriff (Joaquim de Almeida) who’s in Brandt’s pocket.  Meanwhile Dell doesn’t let up.  He tries killing Dalton, once on a bridge and then on the houseboat Daltons rented from the dockmaster (Craig Ng); but the second attempt doesn’t go well for him, and he winds up in the jaws of a giant, bad-CGI crocodile.  (Obviously, the script doesn’t miss a trick.)

There are a few subplots along the way, like Dalton’s tutoring other bouncers at the bar—particularly Billy (Lukas Gage) and his buddy Reef (Dominique Columbus)—in how to handle rowdy customers.  But overall the movie follows a pretty direct trajectory, concentrating on how Dalton deals with the parade of goons Brandt sends after him.  It’s only after the villain opts for more extreme steps—firebombing Charlie’s shop and kidnapping Ellie—that his righteous anger explodes.  That coincides, moreover, with Brandt’s father sending in the most formidable possible foe—a crusher called Knox (Conor McGregor), who looks like the actual Hulk, but with a beard and multiple tattoos rather than green skin, and sporting a perpetual rictus grin on his face. 

Dalton’s reaction here, though, is unlike the direct approach Swayze’s version took in the original movie, which simply involved attacking the villain’s estate and picking off his remaining henchmen one by one.  Gyllenhaal’s Dalton mounts an elaborate scheme that includes theft, speedboats, explosives and underwater rescues, all of which culminate in the inevitable final confrontation between Dalton on the one hand, and Brandt and Knox on the other.  It’s all very complex, and though Liman, cinematographer Henry Braham, editor Doc Crotzer, composer Christophe Beck and the increasingly important CGI team work overtime to pull it off, the end result is unhappily messy and cluttered.

Equally surprising is the fact that Braham, production designer Greg Berry and costumer Dayna Pink can’t make the setting look remotely inviting.  The locale appears drab and gray throughout, leaving one to wonder whether a resort situated there would have much chance of success.

About the sole point of interest in “Road House” (apart from the bits of live music that, as in the first movie, regularly precede the brawls) is really Gyllenhaal.  The actor has always proven capable of bringing intriguing quirks to even inferior material, and he does so here.  Apart from sporting an imposing physique, he makes Dalton a character that can, with a single raising of an eyebrow, a slight facial motion or a change in intonation, shift from apparently genial nonchalance to steely menace.  It’s an impressive feat, but one given to a story that was rooted in dumb, ultra-violent formula in 1989 and still is, despite the shading Gyllenhaal brings to it. 

In sum, this renovation of “Road House” was hardly worth the cost of the building materials.