The Road House Remake Is Actually a Great Time

Do you ever hear about a new movie like the Road House remake starring Jake Gyllenhaal, assume it’s terrible, mentally prepare your vicious takedown of it — and then watch it? And it’s actually. . . good?

Jake Gyllenhaal in Road House. (Amazon MGM Studios)

I had the damnedest thing happened to me last night — I watched the new movie version of Road House on Amazon Prime, and I enjoyed it.

I’d been so sure of my plan to see it, hate it, and slam it in a review. Another remake in an endless stream of them, for one thing. And the old 1989 Road House has a special place in the action film pantheon, because it’s so delightfully god-awful it takes on a kind of Mystery Science Theater 3000 delirium. It’s a surreal thing to visit that movie again, bringing the generally hideous 1980s mainstream cinematic experience back with a rush.

Some movies that were major releases then were so literally ugly, so incompetently made, so grotesquely stupid, so ideologically heinous, they become things of sordid wonder and hilarity when seen afresh.

Road House is like that.

If by some chance you never saw it, it’s about a “top cooler” played by Patrick Swayze who’s hired to clean up a honky-tonk in Jasper, Missouri, that’s been overrun by the bad element in a corrupt town. In the 1980s, due to the pernicious influence of Tom Cruise’s megahit, Top Gun, every action film protagonist had to be a top something, practically famous the world over.

In this film, a glorified security guard can awe everyone by simply saying his name is “Dalton.” The reaction is some version of “Not the Dalton.” Among his hidden assets when “cooling” tough joints are a degree in philosophy and a mastery of martial arts that allows him literally to rip out the throats of lesser men. I’m already laughing, typing that. That’s the kind of movie it is.

The only straightforwardly good things in Road House ’89 are Sam Elliott, the fan-favorite “Be nice” speech, and maybe the corrupt local gangster played by Ben Gazzara living his best life driving his fancy car in lazy S shapes down the main road singing “Sh-Boom! (Life Could Be a Dream).” Everything else is high camp and beloved trash.

Then this new version comes out, it’s straight-to-Amazon-streaming, and the first thing we see is it has Jake Gyllenhaal in it. That’s a red-flag warning on an action film if ever there was one.

Other than maybe as Donnie Darko, I’ve always found Gyllenhaal annoying — he seems like just what he is, a pure, near-affectless Hollywood product, bred up in the system, never been anything but a slick actor, probably started preparing his audition pieces to be presented to highly placed family friends while in embryo. He’s got the showbiz parents, director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner; the showbiz sister, actor Maggie Gyllenhaal; the showbiz brother-in-law, actor Peter Sarsgaard; the eye-popping celebrity showbiz godparents, Paul Newman and Jamie Lee Curtis; and the showbiz significant others including Kirsten Dunst, Reese Witherspoon, and Taylor Swift.

Politically, he’s a limp liberal, in typical Hollywood style, and claims to be a Buddhist — but not an obsessive one or anything. He’s always ready for his People magazine close-up.

As a presence in action films especially, he’s maddening. Other than one of those bulked-up gym-created bods any actor can get with enough money, trainers, nutritionists, and leisure time, what does Gyllenhaal bring to the world of feverish American working-class rage that’s animated that genre since the 1970s?

Admittedly, dance-trained romance film heartthrob Swayze of Dirty Dancing fame also cut an odd figure in the action genre, but he was so out of place, it became part of the overall, campy, so-ludicrous-it’s-good effect of Road House ’89.

But that’s the weird thing — Jake Gyllenhaal turns out to be a not-bad substitute at the same game. His high Howdy Doody voice and weird Muppet smile and big, blank-eyed, mild-mannered air conveys well the singular effect of a walking lethal weapon who wants above all not to fight.

When we find Dalton in this version, he’s living his worst life as a kind of scammer on the underground fighting circuit, showing up in an anonymous hoodie as an apparent nobody challenging the current hotshot taking on all comers. As soon as he removes the hood, he’s recognized as the Dalton, slumming, and the hotshot refuses to fight, thus reversing the betting in a way that benefits the house. He skims off a bit of the profits and goes on laying low in a dreary self-hating way, living in his car. That’s where he’s found by Frankie (Jessica Williams), who owns a place in the Florida Keys that’s being overrun by a bad element, and away we go.

The old Road House was obviously evoking the old Western genre plot about the mysterious, taciturn tough guy who comes to clean up Tombstone or Dodge City. The new Road House 2024 has invented a character, a cute local teenager named Charlie (Hannah Love Lanier) who greets Dalton when he gets off the bus by observing that he acts a bit like the laconic loner Western hero coming to the rescue of a town beset by gunslingers. No point being coy about genre borrowing and plot point–repeating here — just announce it up front.

This more straightforward approach applies throughout the new version. Dalton isn’t a security guard who somehow became famous, he’s a former UFC middleweight champ who quit after he killed a competitor in the arena. This plot, involving the tough guy trying to escape his past, who never wants to really unleash his potential for violence because he killed a man in the ring, describes the John Wayne character’s situation in John Ford’s The Quiet Man back in 1952, and I’m sure it was a hoary old plot setup even then. But it’s a very useful one, making it clear to the meanest intelligence that the protagonist will get pushed too far eventually, and there will be the fight to end all fights at the end.

Anyway, that this movie was turning out to be pretty good entertainment continued to bewilder me throughout. Even at the very end, there’s an inventive finale to the last fight scene that I can’t describe because it’s too much of a spoiler, but it’s startlingly well done. Turns out I only got the answer at the end — it’s a movie directed by Doug Liman, an erratic talent who nevertheless has given action fans two genuinely great examples of the genre, The Bourne Identity (2002) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014). No idea how I managed to miss that crucial piece of information ahead of viewing.

Crisply edited and gorgeously shot, the new Road House is aided by the setting, with the beautiful Dominican Republic doubling for the Florida Keys. The script is often funny, and the new supporting cast is surprisingly endearing. The obligatory romance is downplayed and handled far more gracefully that in the first film, with the charming Daniela Melchior instead of Kelly Lynch as the doctor who patches up Dalton’s wounds and decides she likes him even if he does jam up the emergency room with his many punched-out victims.

Even though there’s no villain to provide weird menace at the level of Gazzara, Billy Magnussen as Ben Brandt, the rich son of an imprisoned crime lord trying and failing to live up to daddy’s formidable legacy, is humorously vicious and contemptible.

Conor McGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal in Road House. (Amazon MGM Studio)

“You look like a pimp on Easter!” shouts Frankie to the pink-suited Brandt, which gives an indication of how much respect he commands even with an army of goons laying waste to the tiny island community of Glass Key. (Glass key, get it? Reference to a Dashiell Hammett book about a guy on a losing streak who turns it around when he uncovers the corrupt power structures of a town riven by rival crime bosses.)

But above all, there’s Conor McGregor, famed former UFC champ, who turns out to be wonderful as the manic enforcer Knox. Eyes agleam, teeth clenched in a perpetual grin, he looks like some creature in a mad fable that emerges from a hollow tree, stumpy and musclebound, to gleefully torment some poor sod who tried to steal his magic gold or something. This Rumpelstiltskin figure has been hired by Brandt Sr from prison, in order to clean up the mess Brandt Jr is making, and Knox carves through lesser humans in his hunt for Dalton with a hyperactive zest that turbocharges the whole narrative.

It’s strange that this action film wound up going directly into online release — which director Liman protested in an open letter to Amazon brass back in January, saying positive test screenings had earned the film a proper theatrical run: “Amazon asked me and the film community to trust them and their public statements about supporting cinemas, and then they turned around and are using Road House to sell plumbing fixtures.”

But if you’re hard up for entertainment — and who isn’t? — it’s a surprise and a pleasure to have the new Road House movie turn out to be good fun after all, and it’s right there in your own home where you can watch it anytime. Perfect Easter viewing!