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Road House review: A dull, boringly sleaze-free remake that never needed to happen

When the esteemed film critic Roger Ebert first saw Road House, Rowdy Herrington’s now cult classic of 1989, he declared that it existed “right on the edge between the ‘good-bad movie’ and the merely bad”. There was Patrick Swayze as James Dalton, a bouncer of semi-mythic status rocking up to a shady roadside bar in Missouri. With the soul of a poet as well as a reputed ability to rip a man’s throat out with his bare hands, he was ready to clean up said establishment’s act. Ebert wasn’t sure if he could recommend the film; it depended on the audience’s “ironic vision”. It was “not a good movie”, he wrote. “But viewed in the right frame of mind, it is not a boring one either.”

No one today would recommend the film with any kind of sincerity. Yet there’s something oddly worthwhile about it, with its sweet, macho, and (in that distinctly Eighties way) homoerotic viewpoint on masculinity. Like the scene where Swayze gracefully – and shirtlessly – practises tai chi as two other male characters watch and nod appreciatively, twinkly-eyed, a little like they’ve just seen a bald eagle crack open a can of beer with its talons. It’s perfectly of its time and, in that way, untouchable – so it’s a mystery why anyone would prime this of all films for a remake.

And yet, here we are. The new Road House, with Jake Gyllenhaal in the Swayze role and The Bourne Identity’s Doug Liman behind the camera, is neither “good-bad” nor “merely bad”. It is, however, a little dull; the most pointless sort of remake, it takes a cult classic and strips it for parts, reformulating them into just another broad, interchangeable action film. Its hero, Dalton, is now a UFC middleweight fighter with a predictable dark past. And the roadhouse he’s hired to protect isn’t a wretched hive of scum and villainy that explodes into a saloon-style mass brawl on a nightly basis, but a fairly nice beachside joint in the Florida Keys, owned by the good-natured Frankie (Jessica Williams), that just happens to be targeted by a motorcycle gang hired by a wealthy, nefarious brat (Billy Magnussen) who wants the land for a luxury resort.

Dalton, here, is no warrior-philosopher, stoically reluctant to kick ass. Instead, he’s smug and preternaturally fearless, making sure to ask “Do you have insurance? Is there a hospital nearby?” before he slaps the living daylights out of his foes – a set of personality quirks that would sit comfortably on the shoulders of the average Tom Cruise character.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Dalton in ‘Road House’ (Amazon MGM Studios)
Jake Gyllenhaal as Dalton in ‘Road House’ (Amazon MGM Studios)

He’s certainly not anywhere near insane enough to coax out Gyllenhaal’s full bug-eyed intensity, last delivered in Michael Bay’s Ambulance back in 2022 (a film that does earn Ebert’s qualification of “not a good movie… not a boring one, either”). The character even makes friends with a plucky kid, with whom the script, written by Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry, burdens with the line: “So maybe you’re not the hero. I got news for you – you ain’t the villain either.”

Liman’s action credentials are solid (he also directed 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow and 2005’s Mr & Mrs Smith), and Road House, to its credit, features a handful of brawls that move smoothly and cleanly. Yet, there’s also a sense that the camera’s primary function here is to conceal any rough edges, and there’s some noticeable use of CGI in certain sequences.

For a remake of a film that was all about sleaze, this Road House is also clinically passionless, with a limp romance between Dalton and a local nurse (Daniela Melchior) – indicative of Hollywood’s repeated inability to actually imagine what sex might look like beyond straight male exploitation and objectification. Somehow, though, the film is entirely blasé about casting UFC fighter Conor McGregor despite him recently facing offscreen allegations of sexual assault (which he denies). He delivers a performance where it seems like someone’s yelling instructions at him between every line, gesture, and intake of breath. It’s Road House by name, but certainly not by nature.

Dir: Doug Liman. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Daniela Melchior, Billy Magnussen, Jessica Williams, Joaquim de Almeida, Austin Post, Conor McGregor. 15, 121 minutes.

‘Road House’ streams on Prime Video from 22 March