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  • Writer's pictureTony Fronza

Road House (1989-2024)

The actors are different. The plotline and the character names and genders vary. But, although 35 years separate these two films, the elements of fear, justice, and redemption remain timeless.


I recently watched Jake Gyllenhaal's version on Amazon Prime Video. I tried to avoid reading any reviews to make up my own mind. A few comments stated it was "not as good as the original." So, there was only one way to find out - watch both versions and decide for myself.


Sadly, I wasn't old enough to watch Patrick Swayze's 1989 version when it was released (or, at least, my parents didn't think a 12-year-old should watch an R-rated flick). I aged into my forties without viewing the "original" version, and frankly, I wasn't too upset about missing out on it. But after watching the "new" version, I decided to immerse myself in the classic flick to see if the old-school purists were on to something.



1989's Road House begins with the protagonist, Dalton, portrayed cooly by Swayze as a calm, methodical, and respected bouncer in high demand. The audience doesn't get a glimpse into his past trauma or history, which keeps everyone guessing if he's a "good" or a "bad" guy. Swayze's Dalton is more of a mythical antihero, drifting from town to town, seemingly complacent in his domain; decrepit dive bars filled with loud faces, hard rock and roll, and lawless degernate regulars who use bar fixtures, glasses, and beer bottles as props for violent melee musical while endangering innocent staff and bystanders. But, he's always up for a new challenge, and that takes him to the Double Deuce where things really go south for him and anyone he cares about.


Swayze was perfect for this roll in 1989. He was no Arnold or Sly, but he had a great physique and more importantly, the ideal face, hair, demeanor, and charisma for the role.


Swayze's Dalton magnificently weaves the charm of several of his other roles; the passion and sensitivity of Sam Wheat (Ghost), the charisma of Johnny Castle (Dirty Dancing), the intensity of Bodhi (Point Break), and the street-smart toughness of Darry Curtis (The Outsiders). He is tough but vulnerable. He gets knocked down. He bleeds. He calculates which fights to take on directly.


You actually feel for Swayze's Dalton. As you watch his character develop and discover the primal scar from his past, you want him to win every fight - both physical and mental. You feel his pain when a friend or acquaintance is hurt - or worse. You want him to success by cleaning up the mess he signed up for. You start to care about the fate of other characters because of Dalton's integrity.


As Swayze's Dalton struggles to help a small town rid itself of cancerous corruption from a local business tyrant named Wesley (played by Ben Gazarra), by the end of the movie, you yearn for justice - and more importantly, Dalton - to prevail.

 

In 2024's Road House, Gyllenhaal's Dalton heads out of the gate swinging—well, at least ready to swing - until his underground fisticuffs opponent (played by the incomparable Post Malone) refuses to fight Dalton, leaving the audience to understand he is someone to be feared. Early on in the film we are exposed to the 2024 Dalton being a former UFC champion who killed an opponent in the octagon. This sets a foundation for the new version of Dalton and leaves no doubt of his fighting skills or capabilities to defend himself or others without fear or remorse - at least at first.


Setting up Dalton as a former UFC fighter was interesting and timely for 2024. However, you immediately don't worry about Gyllenhaal's Dalton getting a scratch from any mere mortal. And, if he had, it would lessen the value of his epic background as an octagon badass. I assume that's why director Doug Liman or producer Joel Silver cast none other than Connor McGregor as Knox.


McGregor's Knox is an amalgomation of Lethal Weapon's Riggs (an iconic role played by Mel Gibson), former MMA and WWE behemoth Brock Lesnar, and American Psycho's Patrick Bateman (another icon role, played by the amazing Christian Bale). The second he comes on screen you know he's on a collision course for Dalton, which plays out exactly how you would expect.


Before Knox arrives, Dalton passively staves off each attempt on his life without concern - by Gyllenhaal or the audience (he does get help from a gator, though); his apathy peaks when Dalton playfully inquires if his opponents have health insurance, asks where the nearest hospital is and promptly drives them all there for treatment after incompacitating the brainless brood without a sweat. Humor strikes well in this scene, especially when we learn that, conveniently, the hospital is "only 25 minutes away" from town; and this joke is revisited brilliantly throughout the film.


Unlike Swayze's Dalton, Gyllenhaal's character doesn't seem entirely committed to his new job at the Double Deuce - beyond the paycheck. But, he does befriend some townsfolks, namely Stephen and his daughter Charlie, who own and operate a bookstore near the bus stop where Dalton arrives into town. So, when things don't go well for them later in the film because the bad guys (run by a blabbermouth-playboy trust fund brat Ben Brandt, played by Billy Magnussen) realize they're tied to Dalton, things finally get personal for Dalton.


Magnussen's Brandt doesn't capture the heinous, sociopath that Gazarra's Wesley did in the 1989 version. He's also not really "the boss" - he acts on behalf of his incarcerated father's direction; hiding beyond brutes and unwilling to get his hands dirty. He's callous and cautious, but I never felt Dalton or any of the "good guys" were in any real danger until Brandt sent the maniacal Knox to the unleash hell on Dalton and the Double Deuce.


The fight scenes with Gyllenhaal and McGregor are top notch for sure! And, like Swayze's Dalton, Gyllenhaal's story involves struggling to help a small town rid itself of cancerous corruption from a local business tyrant (Brandt). But, instead of righteous justice, I was left just hoping Brandt gets his ass kicked (or joins his dad in prison), and Knox doesn't kill Dalton (or any innocent bystanders).

 

So, where do both films stand?


1989's Road House is a classic, sometimes cheesy, compassionate story of small town folks rallying to salvage the place where they're from and love from evil corruption. It develops slowly and surely. It is an audacious, artistic tragedy of a film portraying Dalton as a moral man fighting immorality more than simply fighting other men.


2024's Road House is an entertaining film. The cinematography is amazing (as it should be in 2024) and Gyllenhaal - who is one of my favorite actors - was a good casting choice, to say the least. But, as entertaining as this movie was, it is much more comical and action-packed than the original. It is still a good film and worth watching on Amazon Prime Video.


But, if I have to choose a version as "better", call me Swayze, but I have to go with the original.



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