Dispatch: SXSW Film & TV Festival Includes Three Major Actioners in Marquee Screenings, To Varying Degrees of Success

This dispatch was written by guest author Zachary Lee.

Action films dominated this year’s Headliners section at the SXSW Film & TV Festival in Austin, Texas. This dispatch reviews three carnage-fueled spectacles that transformed Paramount Theater audiences into rowdy and raucous spectators. 

Road House

The festival opened with the remake of 1989’s Road House; director Doug Liman makes a couple of touch-ups to the original story to give it some distance and also add more cinematic flair. Missouri is swapped for the tropics of the Florida Keys and Jake Gyllenhaal steps into the ring as Dalton, a former UFC-fighter instead of a former bouncer, as Patrick Swayze played. The core of the story remains the same though, namely that Dalton is hired to protect a roadhouse from local troublemakers who come to trash the space every night. The assailants are hired by real estate mogul Ben (Billy Magnussen) who sees the roadhouse as the last obstacle in his way for him to build a resort and series of hotels in that area. Dalton always sends Ben’s lackeys back battered and broken, which leads Ben to send Knox (Conor McGregor) to take Dalton out. 

Road House doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to its brutal fight scenes. There’s one particularly impressive one-take sequence towards the film’s end where Knox and Dalton duke it out using everything from fists to wooden chairs. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for all of the fight sequences, with many having been polished with CGI, stripping away the grime and muck that would have given them more weight and realism. It also doesn’t help that all of the characters feel like they’re plucked from different movies, which results in a tonal clash that plagues most of the film. McGregor is the one who has the most fun as the unhinged Knox, a beefy Joker who pulverizes and terrifies Florida locals with a wicked grin on his face. In theory, he should be a clever foil for Gyllenhaal’s tortured Dalton, but McGregor imbues Knox with such cartoonish antics that the dissonance becomes distractingly jarring instead of interesting. The film never really knows what tone it’s trying to strike, though once the slugging starts there’s much to overlook. 

Monkey Man

Dev Patel’s directorial debut (which also sees him step into the role of actor, producer, and writer) had a lot of hype leading up to SXSW and thankfully it does not disappoint. Monkey Man tells the story of Patel’s unnamed street fighter who seeks revenge on the corrupt police officials and political and religious leaders who’ve killed his family. Even if this revenge tale has a familiar set-up, Patel imbues this grounded story with mythological grandeur, setting his crosshairs at India’s caste system, personified by rooting his story in the fictional city of Yatana where you only need to look out the window to see the disparity between the haves and have-nots. The wealthy and corrupt live in elegant skyscrapers while the disenfranchised below them have to scrape by. Patel spends most of the film trying to draw a little more than just a drop of blood against these people who’ve deified themselves, to their downfall and to our bloody benefit. 

The term “passion project” gets thrown around quite carelessly these days but the term is so apt for Patel here. John Wick seems like the natural franchise that Monkey Man will be compared to, but Patel’s influences run much deeper than that. At the film’s premiere, Patel referenced Korean cinema as a particular touchpoint; the film is a clever sizzle reel of him paying homage to the action films that shaped him. In particular, I love how the chaotic editing and choreography is a visual representation of the inner storm of his character...when you’re in the slums, there’s no time for clean, one-shot takes, only primal chaos. For a first-time director, he throws everything and the kitchen sink (plus a variety of other kitchen items) in, which makes it feel overstuffed as he attempts to honor all of his artistic inspirations. But much can be forgiven, given how singular and tight his vision is. This is the kind of debut deeply rooted in gratitude, of a creative who is unshackled and free from feeling the need to conform to anyone’s vision other than his own.

The Fall Guy

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the festival, director David Leitch’s The Fall Guy focuses on Colt Seavers (the ever charming Ryan Gosling), stuntman for Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Their relationship isn’t like that of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, however; Tom doesn’t respect Colt and often brags that he doesn’t need a stuntman as he “does his own stunts.” When Ryder goes missing, Colt reluctantly gives chase to find him as the actor is starring in his ex-girlfriend Jody’s (a hilariously sardonic Emily Blunt) debut directorial feature. 

The Fall Guy finds a way to balance sincerity and humor without having those moments undercut each other. It’s really the chemistry of Gosling and Blunt that hold this all together, though. I love Gosling at this register, somewhat of a cross between the silly antics of his P.I. character in The Nice Guys and the confidence of Ken from Barbie. He always knows how to poke fun at himself and dial up the charm at the right moments. Blunt also shines when she’s her most fast-talking and wisecracking (which is thankfully for most of the film) and cements herself as a bona-fide action star in her own right.

The film is ultimately a love letter to the overlooked individuals who risk their bodies to put cinema’s most thrilling moments on screen. There’s clever commentary, too, on the vanity of actors and how an A-lister's desire for a close-up can be weaponized to orchestrate their downfall. The Fall Guy could have settled for easy (and deserved) jabs at an industry that far too readily treats stuntwomen and stuntmen as expendable, but its critique is far classier. It’s an electrifying gem that delivers logic-defying stunts but also places front and center the people who make movie magic. This one is for the below-the-line talent, actors be damned. 

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