SXSW 2024: ‘Road House’ Has an Unhealthy Appetite for Violence

Abe Friedtanzer reviews Road House, Doug Liman's update on the 1989 Patrick Swayze film of the same name.
User Rating: 6

Who doesn’t love seeing a bunch of guys get their heads bashed in, especially if they deserve it? That’s where everything converges in Road House, Amazon MGM Studios’ SXSW opener and modern-day take on the 1989 Patrick Swayze film. Director Doug Liman taps into past credits like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Edge of Tomorrow to deliver a film laced with humor that gets progressively overtaken by a thirst for senseless violence. Clocking in at just shy of two hours, it’s at its best when it leans into the comedy of its narrative and stops short of aiming to beat all the bad guys, and a few good guys along with them, to a bloody pulp.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as former UFC fighter Dalton Elwood, whose mere entry into the ring at a casual underground fight compels his opponent to forfeit his winnings rather than take him on. While nonchalantly duct-taping a stab wound in the parking lot, he is approached by Frankie (Jessica Williams), who owns a road house in the Florida Keys but has been struggling with malicious elements coming in to harass her clientele and destroy her establishment on a nightly basis. An aimless, suicidal Elwood reluctantly agrees and soon finds himself in a place filled with the friendliest people on Earth and, unfortunately, populated by some of the least desirable seeking to ruin the fun for everyone else.

Road House starts and functions best when it laughs at its main character’s ability to take almost anyone in a fight. Rather than do much of the enforcement himself with petty threats, Elwood trains Billy (Lukas Gage) and Reef (Dominique Columbus) on taking out the manageable trash. When he does encounter the notorious group of bikers most bothering Frankie, Elwood calmly explains what he’s about to do to them and tries to talk them out of making a stand. When he takes them all out with minimal effort, he doesn’t celebrate his victory but instead, much to Frankie’s horror, drives them all to the hospital, nonchalantly explaining which of their bones he’s broken so they can get the proper treatment.

Like many other action movies, however, Road House follows a formula that ensures that it goes from decently entertaining to eliciting eye rolls. It’s hardly surprising when, after things seem to be going great, Elwood looks over his shoulder as dramatic, foreboding music plays, reminding audiences that the threat is real and that there are indeed very bad people who won’t let things stay peaceful and keep the violence purely funny. There are many predictable turns after that, which make less and less sense and serve only to prolong the action, which becomes more absurd. 

Gyllenhaal feels natural for this role, combining his signature charm and disarming smile with just enough of the creepy persona he honed in Nightcrawler. He handles his gregarious one-liners best as he’s being nice while kicking someone’s ass, and some of the other dialogue, including his explanations of how he doesn’t like getting angry since he can’t control who he is, is less convincing. He handles the physical components of the role well, which is something this film excels in, particularly when it comes to ferocious hand-to-hand combat that feels blisteringly real.

The supporting cast has its standouts, including Daniela Melchior as the doctor who initially dislikes Elwood for forcing her to put needy patients aside to deal with the people he brings in but soon develops a romance with him, and Arturo Castro, who offers nonstop comedic relief as an ineffective henchman who is far too nice and wants to be Elwood’s friend. Other roles, like Hannah Love Lanier’s teenage bookstore operator Charlie, don’t feel like they belong in this story. Billy Magnussen chews some scenery as Ben Brandt, the businessman behind the less polished acolytes he sends to terrorize Frankie, but his character, who, among other excesses, insists on getting a razor shave while on a boat on choppy waters, hardly seems like he could be real and often feels cartoonish.

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To ensure that anyone watching knows this is first and foremost meant to be an action movie, MMA fighter Conor McGregor makes his film debut as a loose cannon hired to clean up after Brandt’s efforts. He’s a human wrecking machine, which almost takes the fun out of Elwood’s dominance. Theoretically, having an opponent he can’t effortlessly dispose of makes some narrative sense, but McGregor’s Knox is an impenetrable, seemingly inhuman enemy who is heavily over-the-top and sucks up too much of the film’s oxygen as he tries to steamroll everything that others have been somewhat more delicately trying to orchestrate.

Knowing what to expect with Road House should be key to a successful watching experience. SXSW is the perfect launching pad less than two weeks before its premiere on Prime Video, where audiences can enjoy the mayhem at home. While a big screen might enhance its pacing and showcase its stunts and effects, television is probably the best way to digest this film, which starts strongly enough but continues to lose quality as it goes, evolving from a surprisingly amusing comedy into an all-out action piece that, understandably, doesn’t put too much effort into making its mindless content all that sophisticated.

Road House will be available to stream on Prime Video starting March 21, 2024.

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