- Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Directed by Mike Newell
Screenplay by Boaz Yakin and Doug Miro
Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan
Gemma Arterton as Tamina
Ben Kingsley as Nizam
Alfred Molina as Sheik Amar
It’s ‘Two Stars’ for “Prince of Persia,”
A Movie that Would Have Been Nothing Without Its Two Stars
Hopes were high that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time would be the first ‘great’ videogame movie. All the pieces were certainly in place: a decent budget, brilliant source material and a director who could actually direct. But Mike Newell, who previously directed such great movies as Four Weddings and A Funeral and Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, quickly gets lost in the quagmire of making an action-packed production. Maybe he needed an “and” in the title. The action is confusingly choreographed, shot and edited, and the story is over-developed to the point of distraction. Were it not for the charisma of its two supposedly miscast stars, Prince of Persia would be a total waste of time, sandy or otherwise.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time takes place in the heyday of the Persian Empire. Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), the adopted Prince of Persia, is traveling with his two older brothers to a Holy City which their uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) suspects has been selling weapons to their enemies. Against Dastan’s better judgment, the brothers overtake the city for the good of the empire and claim among their spoils Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) and a fabulous knife with a glass handle. The adventure really kicks in when Dastan is framed for his father’s murder and goes on the lam with only the princess – who really hates his guts – and the dagger, which he soon learns can briefly reverse the flow of time. Together they must clear Dastan’s name, reveal the true murderer and, because the stakes apparently weren’t high enough already, save the world.
As a production, Prince of Persia wants to be a handsome affair but never really shows off the goods. Newell keeps the action close and the vistas brief, making what should have been an epic adventure feel small. His action sequences, which fans of the brilliant videogame doubtless have high hopes for, are a jumbled mess of close-ups, blurred sprinting and CGI. Although not as inept as this year’s Clash of the Titans (also starring Arterton), Prince of Persia is never thrilling. We don’t believe that Jake Gyllenhaal knows parkour or can sling a blade, we only get the gist of it. The disappointment is palpable.
Gyllenhaal does make up for it with his cocksure performance as Prince Dastan. He cuts a lovable figure as the scamp who became a prince, and although he’s always a little too doe-eyed to play a believable warrior, his boyish demeanor is becoming to the kind of PG-13 action adventure Jerry Bruckheimer seems fond of producing lately. Arterton is also forgiven for her hapless performance in Clash of the Titans, proving the perfect foil for Gyllenhaal’s confident swagger. It’s a shame they have little to argue about other than nobility and who should be wielding a magic dagger, but they do possess a rare chemistry together. Were Prince of Persia made in the 1930’s not only would it have been easier to follow the action, it would have probably led to repeated pairings of the duo in other adventures, comedies and, if they were up to the task, musicals. I would have paid to see them.
While we’re on the subject, if Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time were made in 1930’s one thing would have definitely remained the same: These ‘Persian’ heroes would still have been played by white folks. Much has been made of the whitewashing of this year’s summer blockbusters (The Last Airbender is catching just as much flack, and even more justly). Gyllenhaal and Arterton’s performances compensate for the discrepancy, but not by much. One suspects that the writers made Dastan an adopted Prince of Persia in order to justify his inconsistent appearance. As an orphaned ragamuffin his parentage could be from all over the place, which may not be an elegant solution but would have explained away their problem. On the other hand, Dastan’s eldest brother Tus is played by Richard Coyle, a blue-eyed Caucasian, so there goes that theory. Maybe they supposed American audiences wouldn’t want to follow a genuine ‘Prince of Persia,’ despite the fact that they think we’ll pay to see a movie with ‘Prince of Persia’ in the title.
The decisions surrounding Dastan’s parentage are not the only baffling ones. Far too much effort is placed on making the events of the film feel ‘topical.’ The whole ‘Let’s invade a Middle-Eastern country because we got bogus information about them manufacturing weapons’ thing plays as awkwardly as it sounds. Alfred Molina shows up as a scene-stealing rapscallion who goes on tirades about taxes and ‘government death squads,’ which ring about as true as his ostrich racing scams. Oh yes, and there’s ostrich racing. You can’t have a Prince of Persia movie without a good ostrich race, I suppose.
Fans of the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time videogame won’t be entirely disappointed in the film version, but it’s not a clever adaptation. Although some of the decisions make perfect sense – like opening the story up a bit and getting outside of that one Persian city, or giving the King more screen time – others are bizarre, even arbitrary. By the end of the film, Dastan and Tamina (inexplicably renamed from the game) must prevent their nemesis from using the dagger to turn back time and usurp the throne of Persia. Oh, and if they do that the world will end, although that’s kind of thrown in at the end (vaguely too). There’s also a sequence that stinks of padding in which Tamina suddenly remembers that there’s this palace where they can put a stop to everything once and for all with some kind of mystical failsafe, but it never goes anywhere except into another confusing and unnecessary action sequence. The movie’s over two hours long, so there was really no need to beef up the running time with arbitrary digressions.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a truly great videogame, exciting, engaging and telling a great story to boot. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is not a great movie, although it really could have been. With a cast this charming, a budget this sound and source material that should have adapted itself (the game boasted one of the finest framing devices I’ve encountered in any story), there’s no excuse for such a sloppy result. This is a “Two Star” movie if ever there was one, since without two charismatic leads it would have been absolutely nothing at all.