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Review: In 'Road House' Jake Gyllenhaal Gets Ripped

Kurt Loder on

Have you ever noticed, when somebody remakes an old genre movie, that the original film suddenly morphs from vintage knucklehead fodder to "cult classic"? This is happening right now to "Road House," a remake of the 1989 movie of the same name, which starred the late Patrick Swayze, still red hot at the time for his star performance in the 1987 "Dirty Dancing."

That first "Road House" was a worldwide hit -- well, among people who had to shell out their own money for tickets, at any rate. Snooty film critics helped give the movie an overripe 41% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes. "Grotesquely implausible," grumped the Chicago Tribune's Dave Kehr (as if simple implausibility were a deal-breaker in the movie biz). Elsewhere in the Tribune, Gene Siskel described Swayze's performance as "mindless posturing." But Siskel's print and TV colleague Roger Ebert offered a more nuanced view: "This is not a good movie," Ebert said. "But viewed in the right frame of mind, it is not a boring one, either."

The movie's most hurtful slams may have been inflicted by the annual Razzie Awards, where it was nominated in five categories -- Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, and Worst Lead and Supporting Actor. Appropriately, even in contending for these bottom-tier honors, "Road House" was an across-the-board loser. (It was bested by the likes of "Cocktail," the Tom Cruse hit; Sylvester Stallone, of "Rambo III"; and Dan Aykroyd of "Caddyshack II.")

The original "Road House" inevitably feels a little dated now. Swayze's character, a sort of barroom bouncer-philosopher, really wouldn't pass Dave Kehr's old "grotesquely implausible" standard these days. But the actor stepping into Swayze's shoes -- Jake Gyllenhaal, fearsomely ripped and not to be messed with -- is a more layered character. He's still named Dalton, but now he's a former Mixed Martial Arts champion who once killed a man in the octagon and has been feeling down about it ever since.

Also a good idea in remaking the 1989 "Road House" was switching the story's location from Jasper, Missouri (actually various places in California) to the Florida Keys (actually the Dominican Republic). This "Road House" is thus brighter than the first film, and it feels balmier, too. And as an action flick, it greatly benefits from having an action specialist like Doug Liman (director of the first Bourne movie) at the controls. In addition, the main cast is pretty near perfect, especially Jessica Williams, who hires Dalton to keep the peace at her surf-and-sandy Road House, and 14-year-old Hannah Love Lanier, who manages an appealing combination of cute and cool as a young bookstore clerk.

But the most striking performance in the movie is supplied by real-world MMA champion Conor McGregor, whose character, a notorious and awesomely tattooed MMA champ called Knox, might have been custom-tailored for him. He enters the movie pantsless, walking away from the camera, and he's so convincing as a homicidal lunatic that you almost ... well, lemme check with legal counsel before going any farther down that road. You wouldn't want to upset this guy.

The movie's plot, while usefully retuned, is still gratifyingly basic. Dalton accepts Frankie's job offer, starts bouncing creeps out of her beachside bar, and then keeps discovering more creeps to bounce, giving full employment to some top stunt folk. (There's a great bar fight, and a very funny parking lot standoff, and the hits just keep raining down.) Gyllenhaal's Dalton, also heavily inked, is a master of ironic concern. (Preparing to inflict some major hurt on a hapless biker, he gently enquires, "Do you have insurance? Your coverage is good? Like, you have dental?")

 

Gyllenhaal's simple star power overqualifies him for a movie like this, but he never condescends to his character. He's tough but never sullen, the way some people find Jason Statham to be. His Dalton is Mr. Zen: Whenever he walks into a room, chances are good that the rest of the bozos on hand will soon be getting wheeled out.

"Road House" is available now on Amazon Prime.

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Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

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