' ' Cinema Romantico: Road House

Monday, April 22, 2024

Road House

A commercial and critical failure upon its theatrical release in 1989, Rowdy Herrington’s “Road House” found a cult audience through cable TV and home video. And though I understand director Doug Liman’s frustration at his “Road House” remake not receiving a run in theaters, I also sort of understand the impulse of its distributor Amazon to send it straight to streaming, the cable TV and home video of our time, as if seeking to maximize its cult potential right up front. If watching at home worked for “Road House” (1989), why wouldn’t it work for “Road House” (2024)? We’ll see how that goes. As of this writing, the audience score for “Road House” (2024) on Rotten Tomatoes is lower than the critics score, though, c’mon, what do those snot-nosed, horn-rimmed glasses and black turtleneck wearing ‘audience’ members know anyway? True, this remake isn’t at the level of the original, or maybe, merely not in the same zone as the original, which in its violent flamboyance became something like the camp version of a movie for guys who like movies. Liman’s model is more akin to a traditional jokey-kinda action movie, and on those terms, it proves generally successful, not least because of the secret weapon that’s staring you right in the face and getting shirtless, what, two, three minutes in – Jake Gyllenhaal.

Like Patrick Swayze before him, Gyllenhaal plays a dude named Dalton, though unlike his predecessor, he’s not a bouncer by trade. He’s a UFC fighter with a UFC-centric secret that has made him so feared people pay not to fight him in the ring. This prompts Frankie (Jessica Williams), who runs a roadhouse called the Road House in the Florida Keys, to hire him to help tame her unruly place. The Road House, though, despite its beachside betting is never as evocative a place as the original’s Double Deuce. No one is likely to teach David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin’s script for Herrington’s movie in a screenwriting class, but it’s all relative, and I found myself yearning for a similar block by block structure in Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry’s screenwriting update. The place never stands out, the characters surrounding Dalton never emerge, not so much as fully rounded people as entertaining presences. Dalton’s bar-taming is achieved in nothing less, really, than the space of a montage, demonstrating how this Road House exists mostly as a venue for a rotating cast of musical guests and a stage for Dalton to fight. (The script also does an exceptionally bad job with the crocodile set-up and payoff, which comes way too early and is, oddly, too muted when it does, like it knows this can’t be the real payoff.)

The original “Road House” might have been released in the 80s, but it evoked a western of Hollywood past in so much as Dalton tamed a whole town as much as he cleaned up the club, freeing it from the grasp of grizzled kingpin Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara). The new “Road House,” then, evokes not so much a western as, well, an 80s movie in so much as its villain is a spoiled brat, Ben Brandt (Billy Magnussen), who wants to build a resort in the Road House’s place which sounds like the plot of an 80s movie. But because Ben is not the kind of guy that can mano-a-mano with Dalton, the script engineers an excuse to bring in a second heavy played by real-life UFC star Conor McGregor. He is playing a character named Knox but really, he is just playing Conor McGregor playing Conor McGregor. His whole performance feels like he took Liman’s notes, threw them out the window, and did whatever he wanted, way too much, in fact, and virtually to the point of distraction, yet paradoxically, simultaneously fitting right in. Dalton might romance a local doctor and make friends with the father and daughter proprietor of a bookshop, but his real reason for being here isn’t so much to save the town as meet Conor McGregor, er, Knox in the ring, so to speak, to become Ultimate Fighting Champion, a showdown with a gleeful undercard on a speedboat that’s like the end of “Patriot Games” on a multi-colored upper, to quote Hunter S. Thompson.

Despite so many monster trucks and polar bears, the original “Road House” was ultimately defined by Patrick Swayze, and not just in the image of his chiseled abs and exultant mullet but in the air of his Zen countenance and his omnipresent smile, the one that seemed to know every character better than they knew themselves. Gyllenhaal has a small smile too, though a countenance that’s less Zen than charismatically blasé. When one of the myriad baddies calls him rage-filled, Gyllenhaal’s response is quietly astonishing, like he’s living an LOL text, so bemused by the insult that he’s actively trying to wrap his head around it. Given that we meet him by way of a suicide attempt, and considering the bloody carnage to come, this Dalton feels a little like Denzel Washington in “Man on Fire,” but in Gyllenhaal’s air, Denzel Washington in “Man on Fire” manifested as a Parrothead, as if telling us to just let go and be carried away by the blood-splattered, limb-snapping breeze. 

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