"Prince of Persia": Jake Gyllenhaal, Action Star
By Tim Grierson
May 27, 2010

This Memorial Day weekend at the multiplex, you can travel to ancient Persia or contemporary Abu Dhabi, or you could just chill here in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested America. If you're leaning toward Sex and the City 2's Middle Eastern adventures, I can't advise you, but I have plenty of thoughts about the other two films. 

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Walt Disney Pictures)

One of the things that's interesting about Jake Gyllenhaal's career is that you're never quite sure what he's going to do next. First, he's the star of a cult favorite, Donnie Darko, then he shows up in Bubble Boy, a failed mainstream comedy. Then he's in the smart under-the-radar drama Moonlight Mile. Then he runs around in Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow. Then he makes an impact in two of the last decade's most indelible films, Brokeback Mountain and Zodiac. Is he an indie darling or a mainstream heartthrob? And does he even know?

His latest film won't do much to settle the mystery, but he's certainly one of the most intriguing things about it. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is based on a video game I'm not familiar with. (My wife had to remind me that we had purchased it for our nephew last Christmas.) But based on the film adaptation, directed by Mike Newell -- who, like his star, seems perfectly happy bouncing around between projects of varying quality and budget -- Prince of Persia appealed to producer Jerry Bruckheimer precisely because it could merge elements of his two most recent smashes. There's the grand Indiana Jones-like exotic set pieces of National Treasure and the big, dumb swashbuckling spectacle of his Pirates of the Caribbean films: What 10-year-old boy could resist?

I don't have any members of Prince of Persia's target audience readily available to answer that question, but channeling my 10-year-old former self, I admit that I could appreciate the film's selling points on its own terms: Awesome weapons! Cleavage! Slow-mo! For a movie that caters to younger viewers, though, it seems almost perverse that this action-adventure's three credited writers spend so much time concocting an elaborate plot revolving around palace intrigue "set in the mystical lands of Persia" when the meat of the story is much simpler. An orphaned boy named Dastan is taken in by the king, grows up to become Jake Gyllenhaal, is wrongfully accused of the king's murder, befriends a foxy princess (Gemma Arterton), and must safeguard a magic dagger that can rewind time. With his impressive costumes and set decoration, Newell tries to give the film a more impressive veneer, but Prince of Persia isn't much more complicated than that: It's about guys doing brave things and making clever conversation with pretty girls who act like they're not smitten.

Between this film and Clash of the Titans, Arterton remains a bit of a blank presence on screen. As best as I can tell, her greatest asset is her British accent, which gives her a sexy sophistication that you don't see anywhere else in her vague performances of rather dull characters. (She's much better in the forthcoming The Disappearance of Alice Creed, where she gets to play a real woman with brains.) And in typical Bruckheimer fashion, Prince of Persia has impressive actors lending their gravitas to dopey supporting parts, such as Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina. But I found myself most taken by Gyllenhaal, which is not to say that I think he's particularly magnificent in the film. Rather, like with The Day After Tomorrow, he seems so oddly out of place as the center of this big action epic that it becomes almost oddly compelling to watch him rise to the occasion.

Thinking of past Bruckheimer productions, my mind immediately went to Nicolas Cage, who at one time was a serious actor who decided to lend his intelligence and intensity to stuff like The Rock. And for a while, it worked: Cage managed to hint at the fact that he was above the material while remaining willing to give it the urgency and believability to make it really pop.

Cage has long since become a parody of his former self, but what about Gyllenhaal? As the cocky young Dastan, he succeeds at being irreverent without becoming smug about it. And while awkward shyness used to be his thing, he's morphed into a completely plausible sex symbol -- both here and in last year's Brothers he's been able to scrub away the boyish inoffensiveness that seemed permanent earlier in his career. And while he doesn't quite elevate Prince of Persia or make it worth your while, he doesn't embarrass himself. Whenever he wants to make another of these big summer blockbusters, I won't be surprised. I just hope he keeps making the movies I like him in at the same time.

George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead (Magnet/Magnolia)

To get this out of the way at the beginning, I don't think Romero is any sort of genius. Re-watching his original Night of the Living Dead recently (admittedly on DVD in a colorized edition with hilarious commentary by MST3K alum Mike Nelson), I had to acknowledge that the film is more important as a cultural landmark than it is as an entertaining or thought-provoking horror film. Skipping ahead 40 years, his Diary of the Dead seemed especially devoid of inspiration, substituting bland social critiques about mass media for anything remotely scary or unsettling. It didn't help matters that Romero's zombie template was brilliantly rewritten in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, leaving Romero's dull flesh-eaters looking even more tame by comparison.

So now that I've spent a paragraph denigrating Mr. Romero and his legacy, I should say that I found his latest, Survival of the Dead, to be an improvement. Made on the cheap like Diary, Survival is a continuation of the earlier film, with a group of soldiers (led by an agreeably rugged Alan Van Sprang) venturing to an island off the coast of Delaware where two rival families have been feuding for generations. One family patriarch, O'Flynn (a wonderfully crusty Kenneth Welsh), wants to kill the zombies that wash up on their shore, while the other believes they can be rehabilitated. Trapped in the middle is O'Flynn's beautiful daughter Janet (Kathleen Munroe), who wants to end the families' animosity. And, of course, there is the threat of encroaching zombies.

Perhaps there is philosophical and political commentary to be found in Survival, but one of the reasons I preferred this film to his last is that Romero doesn't seem particularly invested in deeper meaning. Instead, this one is about effective fright scenes, dark humor and some unexpectedly poetic images. I would hardly proclaim Survival to be some sort of creative renaissance for Romero, but the movie's down-and-dirty simplicity (matched by some nicely calibrated B-movie acting) keep this latest installment moving along for 90 minutes with precious few dead spots stalling the momentum.

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