The action heroes who dominate summer blockbusters are meant to inspire a variety of responses within moviegoers — slack-jawed awe, ardent adoration, a Pavlovian impulse to snap action figures and other related merchandise off the shelves, and so on. It’s doubtful, however, that they’re ever intended to inspire helpless, immature chuckles.
So popcorn-movie peddler Jerry Bruckheimer (the producer behind the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) and the other makers of the new videogame adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time should feel at least slightly concerned that Jake Gyllenhaal’s physical appearance as the film’s protagonist, the swashbuckling Prince Dastan, has become wisecrack fodder for fanboys ever since his first on-set photos hit the web. The movie may or may not prove sturdy enough to overcome such pre-release ridicule, but at this point, it’s hard to deny the fanboys have reason to titter; clad in period get-up that distractingly clashes with his contemporary-California-dude features, and with a hairdo bizarrely reminiscent of Jennifer Aniston’s once-popular, Friends-era “Rachel” cut, Gyllenhaal does look more silly than dashing in the role at first glance. And that's before he's opened his mouth.
But the actor can at least take comfort in knowing that he’s not the first action star to inspire unintended laughter instead of intended thrills. Here’s a look back at other heroes who have leaned towards the ridonkulous instead of the rousing.
Nicolas Cage in Con Air
The Oscar winner’s first stab at action-movie heroics, playing a chemical weapons expert in the Bruckheimer-produced The Rock, at least allowed him to retain his nerdy, spastic appeal as a performer. But the same can’t be said of his second (and, unfortunately, not final) collaboration with Bruckheimer, Con Air, wherein the greasy, shoulder-length hair extensions, clichéd “tough guy” stubble, and impossibly buff physique he’s outfitted with to play a wrongfully imprisoned convict looking to return home to his young daughter are already hard to take, even before he starts talking in a hilariously exaggerated Southern accent. The lines he’s forced to utter in that accent — most notoriously his straight-faced reading of the threat “put the bunny back in the box!” when a fellow prisoner holds a stuffed bunny Cage’s character plans to give his daughter as a present hostage — make the movie even more priceless, the kind of junk to watch late at night on TNT for all the wrong reasons.
Geena Davis in Cutthroat Island
Much like Gyllenhaal, Davis is a decent actor who is so thoroughly 20th century in her looks and vocal cadence that it’s near-impossible to take her seriously in any film set in an era in which puffy shirts were the fashion norm. And with her soft, very feminine appearance and somewhat gangly frame, it’s just as difficult to imagine her swatting a fly, let alone dispensing with an army of foes. Somehow, Finnish action director Renny Harlin did not view these as impediments to casting her as a fearsome pirate captain in the big-budget adventure Cutthroat Island (surely not coincidentally, he was married to Davis at the time). Audiences were not so forgiving, turning the film into a costly, infamous flop. Davis at least was a bit more credible in Harlin’s subsequent, contemporary-set action flick The Long Kiss Goodnight, but having genuine badass Samuel L. Jackson at her side instead of Cutthroat’s Matthew Modine helped matters immeasurably.
Chris O’Donnell in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin
Batman has always been such a ferocious lone warrior that his decision to enlist the assistance of a cutely twink-ish teen-boy hero named Robin, who has no discernible special powers or super-strength, has raised a fair amount of “oh, so that’s why Bruce Wayne is an eternal bachelor” speculation in the Batman comics and, especially, the campy ‘60s TV show. So director Joel Schumacher was already taking a mighty risk when adding Robin to the Batman film franchise in 1995’s Batman Forever. Casting good-looking but terminally lightweight O’Donnell in the role and dressing him up in enough biker leather to satisfy a certain kind of fetishist proved that Schumacher may not have been aware of that risk. Then, Batman & Robin, which plays like an extended episode of the ‘60s series with the homoeroticism cranked up to 11, arrived two years later and raised the possibility that maybe the Robin character was the sole reason Schumacher was even interested in taking over the reins of the franchise.
Ben Affleck in Daredevil
O’Donnell in the Batman films is hardly the only comic-book-movie hero around to provoke hearty guffaws within geek viewers anywhere, and he’s also not the only one whose costume bears an unfortunate resemblance to S&M gear. But what’s bizarre about Affleck’s bright-red, pec-flaunting leather number in Daredevil is that it’s situated in a generic movie otherwise free of any kinky flamboyance or sexual suggestion. Truth be told, though, Affleck even manages to be laughable in scenes where he plays Daredevil’s alter ego, blind attorney Matt Murdock. There are certain kinds of intelligence Affleck can sell (i.e. as a comic-book writer in Chasing Amy), but his presence is too frat-boy to suggest a brilliant legal mind lurks within his noggin, and with his red-tinted sunglasses, he looks like an ‘80s-movie reject stranded in a 2003 release.
Keanu Reeves in Point Break
There have been quite a few action-movie landmarks enhanced by Reeves’ likable, gee-whiz innocence (such as Speed and The Matrix), but let’s face it — he’s a star who many moviegoers just love to make fun of, especially when that innocence tips over into blank-faced naïveté. Which certainly occurs in Point Break, in which Reeves plays the improbably named Johnny Utah, an FBI rookie pegged by a superior as being “young, dumb, and full of cum” (a label that has gone on to haunt Reeves the rest of his career) until he finds his niche — going undercover as a surfer (Reeves convincing as a surfer dude!? Who knew!?) to infiltrate a clan of bank robbers who love to hang ten. Another highlight comes when Utah impotently fires his pistol into the air after letting the thieves’ leader, Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), get away free, a moment famously spoofed in the British action parody Hot Fuzz. Directed by Hurt Locker Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow, Point Break is too well-crafted to qualify as a guilty pleasure, but whenever Reeves (and, to an extent, wacky Gary Busey as his partner) is around, it’s easy to see why the movie has spawned a comedic, audience-involving live version at an L.A. theatre venue.
Ralph Fiennes in The Avengers
He’s starred in three Best Picture winners, been nominated for two acting Oscars, and given Lord Voldemort creepy cinematic life, among other accomplishments, but one feat that apparently eludes Fiennes’ considerable talents is the ability to retain one’s dignity when stuck in one of the worst studio releases of the ‘90s. He can at least be credited with avoiding the insufferably hammy approach his two Avengers co-stars, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery, adopt in dealing with the insipid material, but nor does he give the role of debonair British agent John Steed the dramatic heft he can normally be counted on to provide. Instead, he just seems as embarrassed to be in this mess as we are for watching him take temporary leave of his high standards — which, come to think of it, is nearly as depressing as it is ridiculous.
Keira Knightley in Domino
If an attractive young actress opts to achieve the skin-and-bones weight of your average Calvin Klein model, it’s obviously her choice to do so, and nothing audiences should concern themselves with. It’s when said actress attempts to pass herself off as an ass-kicking, gun-toting bounty hunter that audiences are free to puzzle over her near-anorexic build. Such is the case with Domino, in which Knightley snarls up a storm in an attempt to convince as a waif with inexplicable reserves of strength, and yet comes off merely as … well, as an actress snarling up a storm. An absurd sequence in which Knightley’s title character uses a lap dance as a ruse to foil a criminal points up the real reason why director Tony Scott cast the actress — for her flat-bellied sex appeal. The film is based on a true story, and the closing credits are accompanied with a shot of Knightley standing next to the real Domino Harvey, who appears butch, weathered, and utterly capable — everything Knightley conspicuously isn’t.
Steven Seagal in On Deadly Ground
Granted, a lot of Seagal’s starring roles would look right at home on this list — especially those featured in his recent direct-to-DVD embarrassments, in which he films most of his fight scenes either sitting down or using a double to accommodate for weight gain that’s ballooned to nearly the size of his ego — but what sets On Deadly Ground apart from the pack is that it showcases the unique spectacle of America’s favorite ponytailed action star/reality-TV lawman/alleged musician flaunting his social conscience. Wearing a fringed Native American-style jacket for much of his screen time in what can only be assumed a sign of solidarity, he plays Forrest Taft, an environmental agent determined to stop an evil oil magnate (Michael Caine, cashing a paycheck) from building an oil rig on Eskimo land. Apparently, the man who once took out a bunch of anonymous Jamaicans in Marked for Death is now a friend to minorities. Good to know.