‘Road House’ Review: Jake Gyllenhaal In A Bloodthirsty Meh

If only it were a rock-solid dumb action movie. But even the fight scenes seem bafflingly stitched together.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Road House. Laura Radford/Prime Video

Back in January, Road House director Doug Liman announced that he would be boycotting his own film’s SXSW premiere to protest Amazon’s decision to skip a wide theatrical run and release it straight to streaming. Liman signed on to remake the 1989 classic for MGM before that studio was purchased by Amazon, after which he claims the new management left the possibility of a theatrical run on the table. On principle, I’m with Liman on this. Far too many solid, commercially viable movies miss the opportunity to make a splash, culturally and financially, in theaters before they disappear into the sea of Online Content. It’s bad for theaters, it’s bad for talent, and it’s bad for cinema as a form.

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ROAD HOUSE (1/4 stars)
Directed by: Doug Liman
Written by: Anthony Bagarozzi, Charles Mondry
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Daniela Melchior, Billy Magnussen, Jessica Williams, Joaquim de Almeida, Austin Post, Conor McGregor
Running time: 121 mins.

Where Mr. Liman and I disagree is in the particulars of his argument. Liman hypes his Road House’s “groundbreaking action” and a performance from star Jake Gyllenhaal that is both “career-best” and “career-defining.” Without saying that the director shouldn’t be proud of his new picture, or even that it wouldn’t be a hit in theaters, I will say this: As someone who did get the opportunity to see Road House on a movie screen, you’re not missing out on anything special. Jake Gyllenhaal is the sole component that separates Road House from the sort of movie that stars stunt legend Scott Adkins and premieres on VOD.

Which isn’t meant as totally derogatory. Road House is a throwback to the mid-budget action schlock of the early 2000s, and I’m the sort of person who defends brainless popcorn fare like the Fast & Furious movies. (If they ever stop putting those in theaters, I will crash a car through the house of whoever is responsible.) Nevertheless, Road House has a paper-thin plot, a nondescript ensemble of supporting characters, and some of the cringiest dialogue in recent memory. It’s all slightly elevated by a leading man who is perfectly cast but is plugged into a different version of the movie from what everyone else is making. Gyllehaal was born to play dead-eyed weirdos who can go from zero to psycho in less time than it takes to register the change, but this is the shallowest version of that character he’s played to date.

Connor McGregor in Road House. Laura Radford/Prime Video

If you’re a fan of the original Road House and that dead-eyed weirdo does not sound familiar to you, it shouldn’t. This version is a true “re-imagining” of the 1989 film’s concept rather than a faithful franchise extension. Gyllenhaal plays Elwood Dalton, a disgraced UFC fighter who becomes a bouncer on the Florida keys. Instead of a rowdy truck stop, Dalton’s workplace is an idyllic seaside bar that’s called “The Road House” merely to justify the title of the film. Its scrappy young owner (Jessica Williams) is at her wits end, as her establishment is being routinely trashed by a local motorcycle gang. Dalton cleans house with his unparalleled ass-kicking skills, which are contrasted by his calm, friendly demeanor. Unlike Patrick Swayze’s Dalton from the original, who has submerged his violent nature under an ocean of meditative cool, this Dalton’s rage is spring loaded, and the effort of containing it is ever-present in Gyllenhaal’s performance. 

The film shifts from a heightened action-drama to a shamelessly goofball affair with the arrival of villainous muscle-for-hire Knox, portrayed by UFC icon Conor McGregor in his big screen debut. McGregor makes an immediate impression as a cackling bloodthirsty psycho (not exactly a great acting challenge for him). Truthfully, Road House is more successful when it’s stooping to McGregor’s level than when it’s struggling to meet Gyllenhaal at his. The scale of the action and the flexibility of the physics ramp up in fits and starts, particularly in the final act, and while this section of the movie isn’t necessarily better, it is more consistent. Once Road House commits to being a cartoon, it’s a decent one, but it also feels like a concession. At the one hour mark, it’s as if the film itself throws up its hands, says “You’re right, this is all very silly,” and gives up on being anything else.

This would be much more forgivable if Road House were a rock-solid dumb action movie. The film is peppered with fast-paced, multi-man fight scenes that are imaginatively staged, skillfully performed, and nearly ruined by a single baffling stylistic choice. Rather than committing to either immersive long takes of action (the current popular style) or frenetic rapid cutting (popularized by Liman himself The Bourne Identity), many of the fight scenes in Road House are stitched together using ugly distorted whip pans and zooms. This combines only the worst qualities of both of the above approaches, sacrificing the grace of the long take model and the anxiety-producing disorientation of shaky-cam. Ironically, it’s the sort of effect that might not look as terrible on a TV or phone screen as it does on the big screen. 

None of this is to say that Road House is unworthy of a theatrical release. I’m frankly baffled by the decision not to sell tickets to a silly crowd-pleaser prominently featuring a mixed martial artist whose fans are already accustomed to paying to see him. The problems of this film are unlikely to bother a viewer who just wants to see Jake Gyllenhaal and Connor McGregor do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu moves on each other. But, as it stands, Road House arrives this weekend on Prime Video, included with a subscription that you’re likely already paying for. Would I recommend dropping $12-15 to see it in theaters, were that an option? I would not. But I think it deserved a fighting chance.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Road House’ Review: Jake Gyllenhaal In A Bloodthirsty Meh