Road House is an old-fashioned action movie – gloriously, defiantly so

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Jake Gyllenhaal and Doug Liman go back to first principles with this redux of the classic Patrick Swayze vehicle in Road Housestreaming from March 21, only on Prime Video. It’s a movie where everyone understands the assignment, says Travis Johnson.

Plenty of movies contain action, but not all of them are action movies. The difference is that if you strip the action scenes out of, say, a thriller, the story still works, although perhaps with some light retooling. If you pull the action scenes out of an action movie, there’s nothing left. Everything else in an action movie is a life support system for fights and chases. The action, to quote Heat, is the juice.

Road House is an action movie.

Gloriously, defiantly so. It’s a movie where everyone understands the assignment and acts—or occasionally overacts—accordingly. Back when he did The Bourne Identity in 2002, director Doug Liman ruthlessly planed down the espionage thriller genre to its finest point, eliding away all but the most essential elements to create a thing of pure momentum and suspense. Here, working from a script by Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry, he does the same thing to the action genre, but where The Bourne Identity was a javelin or a dart, Road House is a sledgehammer. It’s made for big swings. It makes an impact.

And it is, of course, a reimagining of the 1989 brawler of the same title, a video store staple that saw Patrick Swayze as Zen philosophy-spouting Picasso of violence James Dalton, a legendary bouncer who is hired to clean up a Missouri honky tonk, the Double Deuce. As these things tend to go, this leads him to romance with local doctor Kelly Lynch, conflict with local crooked businessman Ben Gazarra, and ripping a dude’s throat out with his bare hand. Also, Sam Elliot shows up—always a good sign.

This fresh iteration sees Jake Gyllenhaal, bringing the physicality of his turn in Southpaw along with his usual surfeit of charm, but largely forgetting his shirt, as Elwood Dalton, a fallen former UFC star. How fallen is he? He’s sleeping in his car and fighting local goons in low rent MMA matches, where his reputation alone is enough to finish the fight before a single spinning wheel kick is thrown (and yes, that is Post Malone throwing in the towel in that scene). As before, he gets an offer from a bar owner who needs their juke joint cleared of human vermin, inky this time it’s Frankie (Jessica Williams of Shrinking) and her joint, simply called “the Road House”, isn’t in the back blocks of Missouri, but in the sun-splashed Florida Keys.

Right away we get a different coat of paint on the old chassis—this Road House is less honky tonk and more Margaritaville, capturing a little of that John D. McDonald/Carl Hiaasen quirky crime caper vibe and giving us a cheery tropical backdrop for all the bone-shattering violence.

But Road House isn’t a mystery—it’s an actioner, and so we watch Dalton punch his way up the ladder that starts with the outlaw biker gang that’s terrorising the town and ends with slimy real estate developer Ben Brandt (Billy Magnussen, a man possessed of a truly punchable face), pausing along the way to romance local doctor Ellie (Daniela Melchior) and butt heads with rent-a-psycho Knox (UFC champion Conor McGregor) who’s been parachuted in to… well, wreck the joint.

McGregor’s a lot of fun here playing a complete agent of chaos who just bulldozes his way through any situation, supremely confident of his unstoppability. It’s the kind of role that’d get filled by Jesse “The Body” Ventura or “Rowdy” Roddy Piper back in the day, and much like those guys his sheer presence makes up for his limitations as an actor.

Indeed, Road House’s key strength is that it always remembers we’re here for a good time. There’s a nimble kind of genre awareness going on; Hannah Love Lanier’s precocious kid, who Dalton naturally befriends, notes that his coming to town is like something out of a classic Western, while it slowly dawns on Arturo Castro’s hapless henchman that he’s found himself in an honest-to-god action movie and, worse, he’s between the hero and the villain. Later, a fight pauses so the opponents can exchange a set-up-and-pay-off quip because, obviously, that’s what you do, right?

But this is counterbalanced by an enjoyably visceral approach to the action, with Liman’s probing handheld camera gets us in close to the impacts. Gyllenhaal is fantastic; while he plays Dalton as a kind of goof, unfailingly polite when he’s not cracking skulls, when it’s time for skulls to get cracked he’s truly impressive. We get plenty of bang for our buck in the beat ‘em up department.

Certainly, Road House is a mean ‘n’ potatoes action flick, but here’s the thing: meat ‘n’ potatoes are good. If you’ve got a fondness for the OG movie, a discerning taste of on-screen combat, or both, you’ll eat this up and ask for more.