Y’all know me.
Y’all know my failing tends to be a certain willingness to overextend credit to films that might not deserve it, and to turn a blind eye to the failings of something otherwise mediocre in order to celebrate the effort of the filmmakers’ having done anything at all.
Partly, this entry is to prove that yes, no matter how hot the lead of a film is, I am still capable of disliking said film. Maybe I need to convince myself of that more than anyone else; at any rate, here we go.
When I first heard about the movie based on the game, I was a little excited. I hadn’t personally played the game, but was familiar with it as Nathan had played through most of the series. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, but was mildly curious.
The photos coming out, of an uncharacteristically buff and cut Jake Gyllenhaal, were strange at first. “Huh. That’s odd. But also. . . yeah!” I fully admit that it was his hotness that got me interested in the movie.
The trailers didn’t inspire confidence, but I realized recently how little stock I put into trailers; I think of them as the worst way to judge a movie, because of how many times in the past I have been surprised by the end product. After viewing the trailers, I didn’t think much of Iron Man or Pirates of the Caribbean, or many other films that turned out not just to be enjoyable, but bonafide blockbusters. Other movies’ trailers got me hugely excited, only to let me down. Someday I’ll post my thought process behind that, but not today.
Still, I decided to give it a shot.
I think the biggest failing for me was the character of Dastan, and when your title character is weak, well, there’s not too many places to go from there.
I like Gyllenhaal with some weight to him. I like his shaggy hair, and I thought his stuntwork was decent. But I don’t believe him as a rough and rowdy man of the people, or as a willing action hero. He also has no arc to speak of; he starts out the movie in the same place that he ends it. Dastan, being a street child adopted by the king, already knows how to take care of himself and losing his status as a Prince doesn’t feel like he’s lost anything. Sure, responsibilities of leadership and the people would be better off with him leading and whatnot, but that never even felt like a real threat. Sure, a tyrant is a tyrant, but the idea of rule under one of the other, unworthy characters was never made concrete to me. Wanting to solve his father’s murder is kind of interesting, but he never really goes beyond that.
After way too much exposition, we are introduced to Dastan in the equivalent of an ancient world Fight Club; we are expected to view him as ‘one of the boys!’ because even though he’s a Prince, he still goes and hangs out with the men. Which is idiotic, because (and yes, I know this is a video game) in a world like that, even a fairytale world based on a historical one, there are rules. And one rule is, no matter how cool you think a Prince is, you can’t get in a fight with him. For one thing, he’s not really in charge, the King is. And if the King has a problem with you beating his kid, no matter who started it or if it’s all in fun, then you will be executed. Period. For another, he’s wealthy and well-fed; his soldiers and underlings probably aren’t, and haven’t had his training or conditioning. And yeah, he came from the street and all, but after the fight, he’ll pick himself up and go home to his palace. No matter how you slice it, it still comes across as a rich boy slumming.
Why not introduce him as someone more informed by reality? Picture it: a street child, he’s used to starving, being exposed to the elements, and the uncertain world of an orphan on his own; given the chance to be wealthy, why wouldn’t he be delighted to lie around the palace on pile of money and slave girls? Maybe the King even regrets his decision to elevate Dastan, seeing what a life of luxury has made him, but is bound by his oath and certain that if given the chance, his lazy, libertine son would rise to the occasion. That makes his fall from grace at least worth something to Dastan, and when he realizes he doesn’t need that to be happy or that he had a chance to do something as king and help the people after being reminded of their plight, the character has something more to do. And positing that ‘It’s a kid’s movie’ doesn’t work, because there are plenty of kid’s movies with more complex character arcs. For Christ’s sake, if Gemma Arterton is going to spend the whole movie nagging him, at least give her something to nag him about.
The other problem is that I just don’t see Gyllenhaal as a serviceable action hero, at least not the way he’s presented here. I can certainly see him as the type who is called to action, but he’s being sold as Han Solo, when he’s more of a Luke Skywalker. I want to see him start at awkward and sensitive before he’s doing parkour all over the ziggurats. Going from pencil pushing geeks and Donnie Darko to THIS with no gears in between doesn’t sell me. I need to see some kind of progression; maybe by the end of the film he can be bouncing off walls and running across parked horses, but let’s start out in first before trying the interstate, shall we?
Almost the entire time I was watching the movie I was conflicted. ‘But he’s so hot. . . but character development!. . . but his eyes are dreamy. . . but Ben Kingsley WASTED!. . .but pretty hair. . . but Gemma Arterton has the onscreen charisma of beige paint and should be leaving an orange oilslick from all that bronzer!. . . sighhhhh. . .
It almost feels as though everyone is aware of Gyllenhaal’s hotness but himself. I wonder what he thought about the physical change? Anything? Did it even register, or was it just part of a job? It was almost creepy how his change was presented in the marketing for the movie, almost in a ‘You won’t believe your eyes!’ kind of way.
“SEE! him beat up guys instead of write angsty poetry! SEE! him hurt people instead of their feelings! SEE! him trembling with wrath and power rather than emotion! In theaters now! Give your mom and sister a thrill, and then go read Maxim’s article about how he got (kind of) swole and believe that it too can happen to you if you do enough curls!”