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‘Road House’ Review: Jake Gyllenhaal Makes a Bid for ’80s Movie Stardom in an Early Contender for 2024’s Silliest Film

Early in Doug Liman’s “Road House” remake, Dalton (Jake Gyllenhaal) explains his current employment situation to a young girl he befriends at a roadside bookstore. He tells her that he moved to Glass Key, Florida after accepting a job offer from a stranger whose roadhouse became overrun with rowdy thugs who like to raise obscene amounts of hell, and that he agreed to use his background as a former UFC fighter to clean the place up.

“Sounds like the plot of an old Western,” she tells him, which would be an astute observation about the situation’s ridiculousness if it wasn’t underscored by the equally ridiculous notion that middle schoolers in 2024 are referencing 1960s Western tropes in casual conversations. But that’s just the kind of movie we’re dealing with here.

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Everything about this iteration of “Road House” is ridiculous, from the assertion that Dalton is so muscular that full-on stabbings can’t hurt him (only his guilt about being too much of an alpha male can do that) to the implication that the Florida Keys are some modern version of 1800s Australia where all of our most unhinged criminals run wild. And that’s before we even get to the sheriff who introduces himself as “Big Dick,” the unlikely partnership between Gyllenhaal and a crocodile, and the fact that Conor McGregor plays a criminal who spends his first scene walking down the street fully naked for no apparent reason.

It’s the kind of film that should go off the rails — and very nearly does at quite a few moments — but is ultimately saved by the fact that there isn’t a rational moment in its entire two-hour running time. The smallest iota of sanity would short-circuit this story like a grain of sand in a microchip, but Liman and screenwriters Anthony Bagarozzi and Chuck Mondry mercifully spare us from that fate and let us bask in the asininity of a mildly entertaining hangout movie.

Much like the 1989 Patrick Swayze vehicle that inspired it, “Road House” begins with the most 1980s-ass premise you could possibly imagine. Frankie (Jessica Williams) operates a Florida roadhouse that she inherited from her late uncle, whose dry sense of humor prompted him to name his roadhouse The Road House and his houseboat The Boat. But her dreams of running a booze-filled oasis for Florida locals have been hampered by the bar fights, vandalism, and general rough-housing that the local hellions rain down on a nightly basis. So she asks around until she finds the toughest guy on the streets (naturally played by Post Malone) and decides to throw money at him until he agrees to become her head of security. But when she sees him chicken out of a fight with an even tougher S.O.B., she opts to hire that guy instead. And so Dalton ends up on a Greyhound bus to the Florida Keys.

Dalton makes quick work of the first few batches of goons who roll through, but it soon becomes clear that they’re just lackeys for a more nefarious operation that wants to take down the bar. The island’s criminal nepo baby Ben (Billy Magnussen) is no match for Dalton, but the arrival of his imprisoned father’s lunatic enforcer Knox (McGregor) forces our hero to reach into the darkest depths of his soul and bring out the inner animal that made him a championship fighter.

Gyllenhaal’s star has always shined the brightest when he plays weasels and weirdos who lurk in the shadows, but “Road House” is his most committed attempt at playing a conventional ’80s macho man. Dalton is capable of unspeakable brutality, but he also fires off quippy jokes and uses his extensive knowledge of human anatomy to offer medical advice to anyone he beats up. The actor is predictably excellent at the brooding violence but here lacks the charisma to sell many of his character’s Marvel-style one-liners. While some of his goofier moments help develop Dalton as a well-intentioned gym rat with minimal social skills, others fall victim to the same awkward juxtaposition of masculine activities and Muppet-like vocals that plague so many Patrick Mahomes press conferences.

McGregor, on the other hand, steals every scene he’s in. It’s unclear how much of what he does is actually acting, as he simply plays a rowdy and charismatic Irishman who likes to hit people and show off his ridiculous tattoos. But his first acting role (the end credits cheekily say “Introducing Conor McGregor”) could establish him as his generation’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, an inimitable sports figure whose very existence is unique enough to justify plopping him into countless blockbusters.

All in all, this “Road House” is a fitting update to its predecessor’s legacy. Not because it’s better, or even because it’s all that similar, but because it moves with the same unselfconscious stupidity that fueled so many of the ’80s blockbusters we remember so fondly. Glass Key isn’t Missouri, and Gyllenhaal isn’t Patrick Swayze, but anyone who streams it can enjoy the memories of a simpler time when we went out to watch these kinds of movies in theaters.

Grade: B-

“Road House” premiered at SXSW 2024. It will stream exclusively on Prime Video beginning on Thursday, March 21.

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