Jake Gyllenhaal Punches Through the Absurd Joys of ‘Road House’

There are those movies you’re tempted to forgive because they are consciously silly. Nobody in front of or behind the camera in “Road House” is convinced they’re making anything other than a goofy testosterone escape. Somehow, it still tries to be more grounded than the original 1989 “Road House,” which remains a cult status guilty pleasure. Patrick Swayze starred as the ultimate bouncer who can keep the bar in order while finding time to read philosophy and master martial arts. Jake Gyllenhaal updates the character for a new bar in a different time. Gyllenhaal is a perfect choice since he can look lean and welcoming at the same time. He’s a throwback to the nice muscled guy who can punch his way through total absurdity.

This time, director Doug Liman aims for a bit more exposition than Rowdy Herrington’s original approach. Elwood Dalton (Gyllenhaal) is now a disgraced UFC fighter introduced participating in underground fight clubs where he’s approached by Frankie (Jessica Williams). She’s the owner of a roadhouse named, as you can guess, Road House, in sunny Glass Key, Florida. She needs a worthy bouncer who can take care of the roughnecks and bikers who barge in and threaten her business. Dalton is of course said to be the best. He soon arrives with basically just his shirt and finds a nice establishment threatened by a local real estate thug, Ben Brandt (Billy Magnussen). When Dalton beats up some of Brandt’s goons, a total war ensues since this bouncer is getting in the way of big development plans for this area. After one of the ensuing brawls, Dalton meets an ER doctor, Ellie (Daniela Melchior). But just as the romance heats up, so does the need to fight some more.

For most of its first half, “Road House” nearly succeeds in being the good kind of absurd fun. If you’re a fan of the ‘89 movie, leave expectations or biases at the door. We don’t get the equivalent of Jeff Healey in the original leading the house band, covering Cream and The Doors. This new Dalton doesn’t have a philosophy degree or give his crew of bouncers advice with the tone of a yogi. Gyllenhaal actually looks like someone who has taken one too many punches while Patrick Swayze gleamed like a super model. The screenplay by Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry isn’t emulating the 1980s but is a throwback to a classic form of male-dominated action movie. Though refreshingly, female characters like Frankie and Ellie are never turned into sex objects. The first time Ellie meets Dalton she even mocks his macho pose and wonders aloud what the point is of trading punches. In the original film, Kelly Lynch played the doctor but looked like she was auditioning for a Guns N’ Roses music video all the time. 

Dalton may not read philosophy now but he does befriend Charlie (Hannah Love Lanier), a kid whose father owns a local bookshop packed with local folklore. It’s another one of the movie’s attempts at giving the story more human appeal. But let’s be honest, the real appeal of “Road House” are when it refuses to be serious and basks in tossing believability aside. It’s almost a shame this movie has been relegated to streaming, since watching it with a movie theater audience would be a fun experience. Scenes are tailor-made for enjoying in a communal setting, as when Dalton is surrounded by violent bikers and he takes the time to ask if his opponent has medical insurance or a dental plan (since he’s going to need it). There are genuine laughs to be had when Brandt barks commands while trying to get a shave on the deck of his fancy boat during choppy waters. You also can’t hate on scenes where Dalton shows us that real men can take a spike or broken chair leg to the waist or chest and keep fighting. He even refuses to get stitches so the pain can remind him it’s his fault. Liman doesn’t depend too much on CGI and lets cinematographer Henry Braham have fun with POV shots from Dalton’s angle as he takes blows to the dome.

The characters are cartoons but they’re meant to be, from the dutiful younger bouncer (Lukas Gage) Dalton mentors to the corrupt local sheriff (Joaquim de Almeida). UFC star Conor McGregor is the real show stealer as Knox, a maniac Brandt brings in to take care of Dalton. McGregor embodies the level at which the movie should’ve been operating right into the end credits. He’s totally nuts in every scene beginning with walking nude into an Italian market he promptly burns down. The Road House becomes the trashed battleground where Knox and Dalton trade the kind of blows that will leave anyone, even fit people, comatose in the real world. Where the movie begins to lose steam is when it thinks all that matters is the punching for the third act, while giving Dalton a somber backstory he doesn’t need. What the final lap needs are stronger one-liners and even more of a B-movie spirit instead of turning into a standard action fest. The original “Road House” is a guilty pleasure because you’re laughing with it even during the climactic standoff, when the muscled psycho grabs Patrick Swayze and tells him what he used to do to guys like him in prison. 

And yet, it must be said this new “Road House” is never boring. Among the endless remakes we get as if on assembly line, this one does justice to the source material. When it’s working it knows you’re not supposed to take it seriously. Not every action movie needs to reinvent the wheel and it is admirable how Liman refuses to stand apart by getting pretentious. Jake Gyllenhaal is also in on the gag with us, flexing and clenching his jaw in just the right way every macho fantasy should. Visually it has plenty of style and sets the right environment for a summer escape. And the story keeps its priorities straight. Greedy real estate crooks are the villains and only the bad guys have terrible manners. Throwing that kind of popcorn party with a wink never goes out of style. 

Road House” begins streaming March 21 on Amazon Prime Video.