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This recycled 'Road House' can't capture the B-movie spirit of the original

Jake Gyllenhaal is a former UFC star who becomes a bouncer in <em>Road House. </em>
Laura Radford
Prime Video
Jake Gyllenhaal is a former UFC star who becomes a bouncer in Road House.

There's been so much conflict behind the scenes of the new Road House remake that the fighting on-screen almost pales by comparison. Last month, R. Lance Hill, a writer on the original 1989 film, filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the companies behind the remake, MGM Studios and its parent, Amazon Studios. Meanwhile, Doug Liman, the director of the remake, has publicly blastedAmazon for bypassing theaters and giving the movie a streaming-only release.

I can't help but empathize with Liman. His Road House isn't a great movie by any stretch, but what pleasures it has are best experienced on a big screen in a packed house. The original Road House did decent theatrical business back in 1989, before becoming a cult classic on home video. Watching it today, you can see why: It's dumb and satisfying, a straight-no-chaser shot of sex and violence. And Patrick Swayze remains irresistible as Dalton, a strong, silent, frequently bare-chested bar bouncer who gets sucked into a crowd-pleasing maelstrom of small-town mayhem.

The remake, written by Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry, mostly sticks to the original template. In this version of the story, Dalton, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship star who's fallen on tough times. He's run out of options when he's offered a job cooling down the riff-raff at a roadhouse in the Florida Keys. When he shows up, he teaches the other bouncers to de-escalate the violence that flares up night after night among the bar's very mean, very drunk patrons.

Even so, Gyllenhaal's Dalton feels like less of a pacifist than Swayze's, and he's not afraid to stir up trouble. At one point, a nasty biker gang shows up and starts wreaking havoc inside the roadhouse. Dalton lures them outside and gives them the chance to walk away. They mock him, clearly not knowing what they're dealing with.

This isn't the first time Gyllenhaal has played an ultra-shredded fighter, as he did in the 2015 boxing melodrama Southpaw. His Dalton is a pretty standard-issue protagonist, complete with a troubled past that haunts his dreams. But Gyllenhaal, who's always brought a touch of wild energy even to his good-guy roles, makes those demons more convincing than you'd expect.

None of the other actors are especially persuasive, except Jessica Williams as the roadhouse's tough-minded owner. As a snarling hit man who tries to take Dalton down, the Irish professional fighter Conor McGregor does make an impression, in the same way a wrecking ball makes an impression.

My favorite performance is given by a hungry crocodile who makes short work of one of the more annoying members of the cast and gives the movie some authentic Florida flavor.

Probably my favorite performance is given by a hungry crocodile who makes short work of one of the more annoying members of the cast and gives the movie some authentic Florida flavor. Most of the other key characters have been recycled from the first film, from the flirty doctor who gives Dalton more than strictly medical attention to the wealthy villain who has his own designs on the roadhouse.

But for all its attempts to recapture the B-movie spirit of the original, this Road House winds up stuck somewhere in the middle, caught between unironic '80s homage and a more wised-up contemporary sensibility. In the first Road House, there was nearly as much free-flowing sex as there was violence; here, the violence has been amped up to even more bone-crunching extremes, while the sole instance of nudity is played strictly for laughs. And some of the dialogue feels too arch and knowing, like when a friendly local compares Dalton to a character in a Western.

As we've seen from his earlier movies, the best of which include The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, Liman is a more-than-capable director of action. The bar brawls here are well choreographed and cleanly shot, and the fighting encompasses everything from intimate fisticuffs to grander-scale set-pieces.

But there's something too artificial about the action, with its often distractingly obvious CGI touch-ups. I saw Road House at a screening in a theater, and it's possible the technical flaws were magnified on the big screen in a way that they won't be on your TV. Even so, it's too bad that audiences won't get a chance to decide for themselves.

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Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.