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film review

Road House

Directed by Doug Liman

Written by Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry, based on the motion picture Road House, screenplay by David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Daniela Melchior, Conor McGregor, Billy Magnussen, Jessica Williams

Classification N/A; 121 minutes

Streams on Now available to stream on Prime Video Canada

Let’s say we pit the late Patrick Swayze’s and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Road House performances against each other – ignoring the whole “No one ever wins a fight” mantra that survived from the original to the remake.

In the one corner, you have Swayze in the 1989 guilty pleasure, giving a comically Zen but also typically smouldering turn as Dalton. He’s a bouncer in a Missouri bar mopping the floor with organized crime in a movie that totally earns its so-bad-it’s-good reputation.

Then there’s Gyllenhaal, who appears in Doug Liman’s light-footed remake, which moves the action to a bar in the Florida Keys. Gyllenhaal’s a committed performer typically shining in dramatically heavy or eccentric roles (Prisoners, Nightcrawler), but he lets that side of his talent just purr in the background while playing a retired MMA fighter hired to clean up the mess that is, well, Florida. Gyllenhaal instead leans on his easygoing charm, playing a Dalton who sweet talks his way through both casual dates and bone-crunching brawls, in a movie that is genuinely good … until it isn’t (more on that later).

Who wins? Though it’s not usually the case: the remake.

Both films are giddily entertaining for very different reasons. They share a name, and familiar plot beats, but are otherwise hitting in different weight classes – the newer version has a lot of great jokes in it, while the older tends to be the joke. And while Swayze showed off some bad tai chi to find appeal in the martial arts craze of the 1980s, Gyllenhaal, as ripped as ever, is out to win over modern mixed-martial arts crowds with fight scenes so kinetic and convincingly brutal I was often squirming. Gyllenhaal even surprised fans when jumping into the octagon last year at UFC 285, filming a flashback scene for Road House in front of the live audience between scheduled fights.

Speaking of audiences, you won’t be seeing Road House with one, which is tragic. The movie is being released directly on Prime Video, which has been a point of consternation for the director. Liman called out Amazon for skipping a theatrical release, accusing the streamer of breaking trust with the filmmaking community after it acquired MGM, the iconic movie studio he was making the movie with.

“They turned around and are using Road House to sell plumbing fixtures,” Liman wrote in a scathing Deadline op-ed explaining why he boycotted the movie’s SXSW premiere.

Open this photo in gallery:

Lukas Gage, background left, and Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from Road House.Laura Radford/The Associated Press

There’s something romantic about Liman’s fight, especially in the way it mirrors his movie. Road House is about a place, where people get together, being sabotaged by wealthy villains who are bent on owning everything. Hopefully Liman doesn’t get as bloodied.

His movie kicks things off with Gyllenhaal’s Dalton slumming it in warehouse fights. His UFC glory days are behind him after a traumatic incident that left him a broken soul. The back story, and his emotional state, are never really convincingly developed. But they’re functional in getting him to his bouncer gig, since he doesn’t have a whole lot going on in MMA.

Contenders (like one played by Post Malone) would rather forfeit than get in the ring with him. They fear Dalton’s reputation for causing extensive bodily injury, which is exactly what he counts on. The movie gets a lot of comic mileage out of this caution. Dalton, too, is afraid of the harm he can cause.

When he’s about to scrap – with drunken fools or hired goons – he asks his opponents all the questions they might find in a liability waiver: Do you have health insurance? Where’s the nearest hospital? Early on, Dalton calmly asks an attacker if he’s sure about wanting to fight, after the guy already stabbed him with a knife. He proposes peace, with the blade still sticking out of his torso.

Just at that moment, roadhouse owner Frankie (Jessica Williams) propositions Dalton to bring his specific set of skills to dismantle the hooligans who terrorize her establishment, which is actually named Road House. She finds the obviousness of the name – because the Road House is actually a roadhouse – humourous.

There’s a whole running gag in this self-deprecating movie about how everything and everyone is incredibly obvious. A boat is called “The Boat.” A password is “0000.” The villains are all obsessed with real estate – it’s Florida! And, as one precocious character puts it, Dalton’s arrival, moseying on into a small town to take out the trash, is “the plot to a western.”

Liman makes the most of what most would assume are flaws. He leans into the simplicity and familiarity of Road House’s premise, keeping the space open for big personalities to make it cartoonishly good fun. A scene as basic and formulaic as when the bad guys stand around to reiterate their scheme is turned into mayhem because Game Night’s Billy Magnussen (game as always) fills it with smarminess. His Ben Brandt holds the conversation while a personal barber gives him a shave, with a straight razor, on a yacht, as it navigates rough waves. The results are hysterical.

Liman starts to lose his grip around the time that UFC champ Conor McGregor shows up as the headlining bar fight challenger for Dalton. The chaotic last act is a pileup of nonsensical double crosses, cheap-looking explosions and vehicular mayhem (the kind producer Joel Silver usually prefers).

It’s a mess that still manages to keep afloat because the personalities are so damn likeable. Liman’s movies tend to give a lot upfront. But then they limp to the finish line. That goes for favourites such as The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, which aren’t terrible company for Road House to keep.

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