Road House (2024)

Billy Magnussen and Jake Gyllenhaal in Amazon Prime’s remake of “Road House.”

Idiocy packs a punch in ultra-violent ‘Road House’

Few are as gifted as Doug Liman when it comes to directing snarky action flicks, whether they are cerebral like “Go” and “Edge of Tomorrow” or as brainless as his new Amazon Prime streamer, “Road House.” The guy just has a knack for appealingly taking joshing and jousting to an absurdist level. You come for the over-the-top violence but stay for the witty, tongue-in-cheek wisecracks flowing fast and furiously from his actors’ lips. 

     It’s no different here, although you wind up wishing he’d taken on something a bit more challenging than a retread of a 35-year-old relic like “Road House.” You sense Liman is punching below his weight. Ditto for his hunky star, Jake Gyllenhaal. You get as good as both give in embarking on a fool’s errand to instill freshness while simultaneously expressing reverence for the original. 

     At times, it proves pointless, as if they are merely going through the motions, tossing characters and plot points against the wall. Yet, just as often, amid the plethora of gratuitous violence, are snippets of actual meaning. You can drive yourself crazy attempting to reconcile those moments with a dozen crushed skulls. Better to simply check your brain at the booze-soaked bar and turn yourself over to Gyllenhaal’s sly turn as what one bystander pegged as the role of the Western hero sent to save a besieged town from unscrupulous land barons. In this case, that would be the fictitious Florida Keys isle of Glass, so named – I suspect – because all the black hats possess jaws born from sand and water.

How else to explain why Gyllenhaal’s ex-UFC fighter singlehandedly wipes out a gang of thugs with one bulging bicep tied behind his rippling back? Stupidly, they keep coming back for more, only to repeatedly wind up in the local ER run by an impossibly sexy lady doctor (Daniela Melchior) to whom Gyllenhaal’s Elwood P. Dalton may – or, may not – be attracted. 

     Movie buffs will catch the name reference to Jimmy Stewart’s seemingly insane character in “Harvey.” It’s just one of many Easter eggs Liman scatters throughout, many of them paying homage to the original “Road House.” I particularly appreciated the nondescript greasy spoon dubbed the Double Deuce, which shares its name with the roadhouse depicted in the 1989 original. Here, the unruly gin joint, transplanted from Missouri, carries the uninspired moniker of Road House. And its owner, Ellie Black (Jessica Williams) – like Kevin Tighe in 1989 – approaches Dalton like a football coach recruiting a five-star quarterback, begging him to bring his talents to her school – er, bar – to lead a hapless team of bouncers. 

      Like his “Donnie Darko” costar before him, Gyllenhaal settles snuggly into the Patrick Swayze role of the well-mannered bonebreaker with a dark past. Overnight, he transforms Road House from a Wild West saloon into a respectable conch bar. Natch, this doesn’t sit well with the local hoods who want Ellie to go belly up so they can grab her piece of prime real estate for a planned resort. Cue a motley crew of enforcers to do away with Dalton by any means necessary. 

  Their boss is the preening scion of a Trump-like developer named Brandt. He’s played by Billy Magnussen (“No Time to Die”) as if he’s auditioning for the Vince Vaughn role in a remake of Liman’s debut flick, 1996’s “Swingers.” Sorry, Billy, you’re no Vince Vaughn. You’re barely Mini-Me. You’re also hugely upstaged by newcomer Conor McGregor as the fearsome, muscle-bound Knox, summoned to Glass to grind Dalton into crocodile chum. He’s basically the ornery Jack Palance character from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the sociopathic hired gun who communicates not with words but with fists, knives and bullets. 

    McGregor’s introduction is one for the annals of movie history. Or, should I say anals, since his buns of steel are on stark display as he strides buck naked through a large gathering in a two-minute tracking shot you won’t soon forget? He’s a real find, and he’s funny, often without uttering a word. His Knox may actually strike fear in Dalton, and their climactic showdown doesn’t disappoint, as immovable object meets unstoppable force.

     Like the original, directed by Rowdy Herrington from a story idea by David Lee Henry, Liman and his writers Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry, stress fisticuffs and braggadocio over cranial activity. But in both cases, the formula is a winning one, albeit this “Road House” does it quite a bit better. Still, that doesn’t mean it will be showing up at next year’s Oscars. One, because it isn’t eligible since – much to the consternation of Liman and Gyllenhaal – it’s going straight to streaming. And two, because it’s pretty lame in the scheme of things. But like a beer bottle upside the head, it gets your attention. 

Movie review

Road House

Rated: R for language, violence, brief nudity and drug references

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Daniela Melchior, Conor McGregor, Jessica Williams, Billy Magnussen and Joaquim de Almeida

Director: Doug Liman

Writers: Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry based on an original story by David Lee Henry

Runtime: 114 minutes

Where: Streaming on Amazon Prime beginning March 21

Grade: B-

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