‘Road House’ Review: Jake Gyllenhaal Compels in Doug Liman’s Brashly Entertaining Remake

There are some key differences between the Dalton of Rowdy Herrington’s 1989 cult classic Road House and the Dalton of Doug Liman’s equally boisterous remake. To start, the stoic bouncer’s first name is now Elwood instead of John. He rolls into town — the Florida Keys, not Kansas City — on a Greyhound bus instead of in a new car. This Dalton walks everywhere, wearing down the soles of his cigar brown combat boots with each mile. His swagger is enhanced by a mellow kindness — at one point, a character compares him to Mr. Rogers (with a violent edge, of course). 

What hasn’t changed all that much are Dalton’s motivations and his notoriety. When we meet the infamous man, played here with compelling restraint by Jake Gyllenhaal, his face is shrouded by his black hoodie. He saunters into an underground fight club with a menacing determination. The camera trails him, soaking in his broad shoulders before detailing how meticulously he removes his sweatshirt and unties his laces. He’s ready to make some money. His unnamed opponent (Post Malone in sweaty glory) forfeits before Dalton can even take his shoes off. The inked fighter with the nasty growl is in no mood to die. 

In Road House, which premiered at SXSW and will hit Prime Video on March 21, Dalton is haunted by his past as a UFC fighter. The details around a well-known fight between him and his best friend remain relatively mysterious. (Liman offers glimpses through Dalton’s nightmares.) Like Patrick Swayze’s original character, Gyllenhaal’s Dalton hesitates when asked to protect a bar from local goons. Money makes the decision easier. When Frankie (Jessica Williams) offers Dalton $5,000 a week, in cash, to clean house at her cheekily named Florida roadside joint (called The Road House), he gets on the next bus to the tropical archipelago. In the small community of Glass Key, he befriends a headstrong teenager (Hannah Lanier), trains a crop of amateur fighters (Lukas Gage and Dominique Columbus) and makes a new set of enemies. 

The film starts off as a straight homage to Herrington’s film peppered with one too many meta textual references. Easter eggs abound for the Road House-initiated and that lends the early part of the film a kind of tired stiffness. Dalton’s relationship to Charlie (Lanier), a literary teen who works at her dad’s bookstore, is a reliable excuse for the narrative (the screenplay is by Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry) to overanalyze itself. There are more than a few moments when she compares Dalton to a cowboy and wonders if his appearance is the beginning of a Glass Key western. 

When Road House finds its own story, the film really takes off. The general narrative remains the same (this is still a campy adventure with minor-key humor and a host of lethal action sequences) but the details make good use of the new setting. Liman filmed the entire movie on location in the Dominican Republic, and uses the wide swaths of ocean to stage eye-popping boat fights and epic underwater brawls. 

Gyllenhaal’s performance starts in the shadow of Swayze’s — Dalton’s signature smirk and laconic posture are all here — before evolving into something more complicated. In the actor’s interpretation, the smile is a parallel narrative of Dalton’s emotions. It can be a smug gesture, a hint at greater knowledge or a warning of violence to come.

Where Gyllenhaal’s smile teases, his body indulges. The fight scenes in Liman’s Road House are just as bloody and ridiculous as those in Herrington’s. In early moments, Dalton takes on the low-level threats, and the focus is on a kind of intellectual combat that flaunts his precision and agility. Most of these bullies are the henchmen of Ben Brandt (Billy Magnussen), the son of an incarcerated mobster. The power-hungry heir wants to destroy The Road House so he can build oceanside resorts for a wealthy clientele. Later, when Dalton takes on a henchman (Conor McGregor) hired by Ben’s father, the fights become a battle of wincing blows and brutal attacks.

Where the movie feels less realized is in its romantic thread: Dalton’s relationship with Ellie (Daniela Melchior), an ER doctor, struggles to register as more than an afterthought. 

Still, Liman flexes his stylish direction, especially during the bloody confrontations. He toys with angles and perspective to keep these scenes dynamic. And even though Road House will likely be measured by the intensity of its fights, it manages to shape a surprisingly grounded portrait of the Keys, and perhaps the South more broadly, through its music. The fictional Road House stage becomes a lively showcase for real artists, from the “swamp-pop” of C.C Adcock and Tommy McClain to the funky electronic sounds of Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph. Their tunes, coupled with the company Dalton attracts, make nearly every moment of Road House an event.

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