REVIEW: Gyllenhaal, Prince of Persia Delivers Throwback Movie Thrills
Prince of Persia is a maybe-not-so-accurate historical epic based on a video game -- and that's the reason to see it, not stay away from it. By now everyone has seen the pictures of an impossibly buff and buffed Jake Gyllenhaal -- his skin looks as if it's been polished with centuries' worth of walnut oil -- as an ancient Persian warrior. We've all laughed derisively at his brooding stare and anachronistic rock-star tresses. But Gyllenhaal gets the last laugh in Prince of Persia: He's having a great time, he knows he looks awesome and he gets to ride horses. Plus, in the end his character gets the girl, a stunner of a princess named Tamina (though I immediately forgot her name and could henceforth think of her only as Princess Hummina Hummina). If you think you're above Prince of Persia -- and until I saw it, I certainly did -- then it's time to come off your not-so-high horse.
Gyllenhaal's character is Dastan -- which some of the actors pronounce "Desitin," conjuring some unusual imagery for an action hero, but never mind -- and he's not really a prince. As an orphan boy, he was rescued from the streets by the then-king of Persia, Sharaman (played by the British actor Ronald Pickup), who was impressed by the kid's courage and pluck. King Sharaman raises Dastan as his own, along with his two sons (played by Richard Coyle and Toby Kebbel, also British actors). Meanwhile, Sharaman's brother, Nizam (Ben Kingsley, yet another British actor, in case you don't see the pattern emerging here), lurks ominously at the sidelines, wearing lots of eyeliner. A plot of deceit and intrigue unfolds, all stemming from Sharaman's invasion of a peaceful nearby country: The princess of that country, the aforementioned Tamina, is played by Gemma Arterton (a British actress recently seen in another princessy role in Clash of the Titans). When she and Dastan meet, it is, of course, love at first sight, despite the fact that he and his brothers have just bullied their way into her poor, beleaguered country.
The story, as you can surmise, is pure hokum. But what hokum! Prince of Persia acknowledges its absurdity and runs with it, turning a possible liability into a crazy brand of Saturday-matinee majesty. The director is Mike Newell, the filmmaker behind, among other things, Donnie Brasco and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one of the better movies of that franchise. Newell is part of an increasingly rare breed: A filmmaker working in the mainstream who knows what he's doing. Even when his movies aren't perfect, they at least have a definite vision, and you never get the sense he's dumbing stuff down to make sure the audience gets it.
Prince of Persia has lots of action, and for the most part Newell handles it deftly. While there's clearly some CGI afoot, he also showcases honest-to-God stuntwork -- characters leap from one rooftop to another, or swing, Douglas Fairbanks-style, from lengths of rope. (There's also an ostrich race presided over by a cackling Alfred Molina, who shows up for some comic relief.) Even Newell's use of a mostly British cast is an affectionate nod to the days when classically trained (or just plain good) actors -- James Mason, Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer -- would regularly show up in historical epics. I'm afraid people will giggle when they first hear Gyllenhaal's affected English accent. But I suspect that's Gyllenhaal's way of fitting in with his fellow actors and with this tradition. He doesn't want to be left out of this club, and why should he? His performance is straightforward and refreshingly unsubtle; he seems to be having a blast, strutting and smoldering his way through the sands of time.
Pages: 1 2