You need to tread a fine line when paying homage to 1980s action movies. Wink too much at the audience and it’ll either feel like you’re striving for cult status or telling the audience they shouldn’t take your film so seriously; play it too straight and you run risk of viewers not realizing you’re in on the highly ridiculous joke. The recent Jason Statham vehicle The Beekeeper is, for me at least, the best recent example of a filmmaker perfecting that balance of gritty sincerity and knowing stupidity, but in its best moments, Doug Liman’s remake of Road House threatens to give it a run for its money. It has several scenes that deliver intentional laughs while servicing a gritty, western-aping narrative which stretches credulity beyond breaking point long before we learn of an evil cabal of property developers and their endless string of violent henchmen. Liman knows how silly this is, but in its earliest and best stretches, never plays his hands so clearly as to make his movie seem like nothing more than genre pastiche.

This is largely thanks to the presence of Jake Gyllenhaal as former UFC fighter Dalton. In recent years, the actor has oscillated between conventional action-hero roles and those of motor-mouthed psychopaths. Here, effectively playing the “straight man” fighting against an endless supply of the latter, it feels like his performance is deliberately channeling prior scene partners in the likes of Michael Bay’s Ambulance, who were tasked with grounding the stakes of the thriller while he was given free rein to act as chaotic as he pleased. Perhaps this is why Gyllenhaal is far more interesting than the average brooding action hero, that recent career context serving as an effective shorthand for a livewire personality hidden beneath a societally respectable facade, far less restrained than he initially appears. He manages to make a damaged character resemble a conventional everyman in over his head––no small feat considering how many bones he breaks and how many dry one-liners he can deliver with ease.

Loosely remaking the original, a 1989 Patrick Swayze vehicle now best known as the inspiration for a recurring Family Guy gag, we’re introduced to Dalton not as a bouncer, but a disgraced former UFC fighter who has found a new scam to make money. Infamous for accidentally killing an opponent in the ring, he now shows up unannounced to underground fight clubs and always wins a cash prize because other fighters are too scared to go against him. This is where he first meets Frankie (Jessica Williams), who’s looking to hire new security at her Florida Keys roadhouse where various biker gangs cause untold destruction every night. On his first shift Dalton sends several to the emergency room, but soon discovers they’ve been hired to be there––a shady property developer (Billy Magnussen) is playing dirty in order to buy up the land.

Whereas Gyllenhaal strikes the right balance between sincerity and self-awareness, Road House falters in its second half as the film around him gradually begins taking the material less seriously. This culminates with the introduction of Knox, played by former UFC fighter Conor McGregor in a work of stunt casting that spectacularly fails to pay off. Aiming to harness his image as the unpredictably violent “bad boy” of the sport––a euphemism which translates to “has an extensive ‘controversies’ section on Wikipedia, with several subheadings”––as a shorthand for the only fighter bold enough to square up to Dalton, it’s easy to see why this was inspired casting on paper.

The immediately obvious problem is that McGregor, to put it bluntly, has little-to-no dramatic capabilities; he delivers each line of dialogue as he would to an opponent in the Octagon or at a press conference, leaning into a theatricality as if he were still playing to a paying audience. As his character is first introduced walking away from an explosion completely naked, Liman’s increasing difficulty with maintaining the right tone becomes more pronounced before he even opens his mouth. This man is a physically intimidating presence, the only person who can stop our protagonist in his tracks––yet he’s ushered into the drama via a prolonged visual gag, instantly undermining any threat he could pose. Admittedly, though, even if this scene were effective at introducing a certifiable threat, it would be undercut when we first heard him speak; McGregor is so used to performing for crowds that he talks at other characters rather than to them.

Much has been written of behind-the-scenes controversies, with Liman refusing to embark on a press tour in response to Amazon’s decision to give this a streaming-only release––something which they were quick to counter that he had signed on for. As one of the few people who will see this on the big screen, I find it hard to believe the filmmaker ever had this medium in mind. Liman shoots several of his fight scenes by constantly refocusing the camera angle with each punch from his actors, undermining the simple-but-effective choreography via cinematography that suggests motion-smoothing in action. It’s almost as if somebody told him an alarming number of TV owners haven’t turned off motion-smoothing and was instructed to shoot fight sequences in a manner that will play the same to viewers on every device, regardless of configuration. It’s a decision that distanced me from what should be inherently kinetic sequences, though there are some inspired ideas that complement the choreography later on––not least one tracking shot slowly becoming a POV just for the sake of having McGregor repeatedly punch the camera.

Gyllenhaal manages to hold this tonally inconsistent film together, but he’s the only person involved who has some clear handle on how this story should be told from beginning to end. Whenever Road House transcends expectations of a direct-to-streaming B-movie, it’s entirely thanks to him.

Road House arrives on Prime Video on March 21.

Grade: C+

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