‘Road House’ Review: Jake Gyllenhaal Takes Command in an Ultraviolent Retread That Makes Slumming Look Artful

“Road House” is an infectiously stylish piece of slumming. It’s a remake of the 1989 Patrick Swayze cheeseball action cult film, and it’s staged with a verve and wit and dynamic grittiness that make the original film look even more rickety than it once did. Doug Liman, the director of the new “Road House,” has always been a gifted maverick, but I still like his earliest films (“Go,” “Swingers”) the best. For years now, he has worked hard to make interesting and responsible dramas, but watching “Road House” you can taste how good it must have felt for him to be irresponsible — to give in to his savage B-movie id.

The action in “Road House” is beyond brutal; at moments, it’s vicious. Yet if the movie is far more violent than your average action film, in its slightly crackpot bare-knuckle way it’s also more humane. Liman stages the pulp for maximum realism (he wants you to believe what you’re seeing), and Jake Gyllenhaal, as a fallen Ultimate Fighting Championship brawler who gets hired to clean up a road house in Glass Key, Florida, gives a true performance. In “Road House,” Liman and Gyllenhaal bring the pain, but they also make you feel it.

More from Variety

The original “Road House” was nominated for five Golden Rasberry Awards, and it probably deserved most of them, yet it was a modest hit, and it’s a potboiler that’s fondly remembered, because it’s the kind of trash you can relax into. It’s like a Chuck Norris film with a real actor at its center. As Dalton, not a bouncer but a “cooler” (i.e., the coolest level of super-bouncer), who is hired to clean up a hooligan dive bar in Jasper, Missouri, Swayze sizes up every adversary with an utter lack of fear — he’s all Zen blue eyes and cheekbones and “I wouldn’t bother to fight you” lethal calm. He’s like the Western gunfighter reborn as a Buddhist shitkicker.

When Swayze’s Dalton arrives at the Double Deuce, the seedy joint he’s supposed to transform, the place is all brawling chaos (or, at least, the 1980s backlot version of it: an orgy of broken prop glass, corn-syrup blood, and stunt fights that look like stunt fights). But it becomes clear within minutes that he can kick anyone’s ass and will. He gets rid of the bad apples without breaking a sweat. That’s why he needs to be pitted against the local Mr. Big, played by Ben Gazzara with a one-note leer; the more “Road House” descends into this showdown, the more formulaic it becomes. Swayze, who truly was a good actor, holds the sketchy underworld plot together (with a little help from Sam Elliott), but by the end you almost wish it was a Chuck Norris movie.

So why remake this late-’80s piece of nostalgia-inducing junk? Because in a world where some consider the “John Wick” movies to be high art, slumming has become its own form of hipsterism. Liman, who showed up tonight (in a cowboy hat) for the film’s SXSW premiere, has reacted with howls of betrayal over the fact that his film, backed by Amazon Studios, is not going to be playing in movie theaters. Without getting into the weeds of who promised what deal to whom, I think Liman is dead right about one thing: If it were to play in theaters, “Road House” could be a decisive hit. (I bet it would gross $50 million or more.) If the first “Road House” was a better Chuck Norris movie, the new one is something more uncanny — it’s like a Jason Statham movie directed by Jonathan Demme.

Demme, the most humane of filmmakers, had a classical and nearly invisible technique. He knew exactly how long to hold a shot, how to structure a movie with fluid ingenuity. Yet what defined him was how he treated everyone onscreen as a genuine person. Liman, in “Road House,” approaches the debased spectacle of sadism and revenge in a comparable way. He milks it for the satisfaction you want from a film like this one — the joy of watching bad guys get what’s coming to them. Yet he never makes it look too easy. He lets the action unfold against a bevy of bar bands doing their thing, and damned if the music doesn’t work in a Demme-like fashion (the way it did in, say, “Something Wild”). There’s something cathartic about how “Road House” serves up bone-crunching vengeance with an island party-tavern beat.

Gyllenhaal’s hero, who is still named Dalton (now he’s Elwood Dalton), is introduced entering the gladiatorial ring of a sordid underground-circuit ultimate fighting competition, where all he has to do is remove his hoodie and shirt and reveal who he is; that’s enough for his opponent to give in. What the audience sees is a set of abs so awesome they appear etched, as well as the Gyllenhaal ‘tude. He makes Dalton that rare thing, a pensive and considered badass. When he first confronts the goons who have shown up to cause trouble, he asks them if there’s a hospital nearby (this is his funny form of warning). After kicking the crap out of them in the parking lot, he drives them to the hospital.

Gyllenhaal makes Dalton sincere yet sarcastic, and his punches are so fast they practically stop time. (He also takes one man’s pathetic fist in the face as if a baby were punching him.) And though he’s basically a sweetheart, just like the Swayze character was, he’s got more torment, and more anger, bubbling underneath. Gyllenhaal, with his perfect coif and his stoic smirk, is like Anthony Perkins stripped of self-doubt. He plays Dalton as almost ironically recessive, but you wouldn’t want to get in his way.

Frankie (Jessica Williams) is the owner of the road house — which is now, incidentally, named the Road House. It’s a sprawling getaway on the beach with a grass roof and open walls, like a giant tiki bar. Why does it need to be cleaned up? Because Brandt, played by Billy Magnussen as a baby-faced weasel, wants to eliminate the place so that he can build a high-end resort.

The plot is simplicity itself, but each of the villains has his own maniacal flavor. Brandt, scoundrel that he is, actually believes that he’s a virtuous architect of the community; that’s his evil folly. And once Dalton puts Dell (JD Pardo), ringleader of the local motorcycle gang, out of business with the help of the crocodile who lives under the houseboat he’s crashing in, Brandt’s powerful father calls in a brute-force fixer: Knox, played by the Irish mixed-martial-arts fighter Conor McGregor in a stunning movie debut. Thick-bearded and bulky-chested, with gleaming white teeth, he makes Knox move around like a gorilla on pep pills, and the exuberance of his homicidal fury could be out of a “Mad Max” film.

This is an adversary worthy of Dalton — his equal, except for the fact that he’s on the side of wrong. But as the film builds toward their ultimate showdown, getting very vehicular in the process (Liman turns the crashing confrontations of trucks and boats into a kind of nihilistic action ballet), you feel the low-down momentousness. This is not a war that’s going to be won by punching. Only stabbing — a great deal of it — will do.

I don’t want to overpraise “Road House.” It’s a movie, like the first film, that’s been assembled out of standard components. Yet that’s part of its scuzzy pleasure — that it has no pretense about itself, except for the intensity with which Liman stages it, turning the fight scenes into rollicking spontaneous smashfests. Daniela Melchior, who takes the Kelly Lynch role (the local physician who falls for Dalton), amps up the tough-nut romanticism. But it’s Gyllenhaal’s movie. He has always exuded a warm and almost ethereal decency on screen, yet he has had difficulty finding the perfect vehicle for it. Who would have thought that the ultimate expression of Jake Gyllenhaal’s heart would be his ability to punch this hard?

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.