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Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Director: Mike Newell
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Steve Toussaint, Gísli Örn Garðarsson

(Walt Disney Pictures; US theatrical: 28 May 2010 (General release); UK theatrical: 28 May 2010 (General release); 2010)

Destinies

Save the empire!
—Garsiv (Toby Kebbell)


Seso (Steve Toussaint) is a Knife Thrower. He’s also tall and imposing, as well as pierced and tattooed. He stands out among the many, many players in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, partly because he is, in fact, so very good at what he does, but also because he doesn’t do a lot of talking, even as he’s surrounded by some very chatty individuals, royal and common alike.


Seso also stands out because of his not-quite-explained relationship with the peddler Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina). One of those wheeling-and-dealing comic relief characters who show up in action movies where heroes tend to take themselves far too seriously, Sheik Amar says only that he once saved Seso’s life, and so now the Knife Thrower is forever indebted, that is, accompanying him on his travels and doing his bidding.  This is very nice for Sheik Amar, of course, who now lives with a permanent bodyguard in tow, and can also can threaten, bully, and exact revenge on whomever he likes, by way of his assassin-cum-sidekick.


The fact that Seso is also black might be a coincidence. But it’s hard not to see, as he is absolutely the darkest individual in Prince of Persia. Some viewers have raised concerns over the film’s casting of Caucasian actors in Persian roles, suggesting that the movie is a missed opportunity for showcasing Asian stars not named Sir Ben Kingsley, Seso has passed pretty much unnoticed.


This can’t be surprising. It’s routine, after all, to see black supporting players in action movies, especially black supporting players willing to sacrifice themselves for the righteous white-identified cause. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem, especially in a movie that tries to have it all ways, celebrating a noble hero who literally comes up from the streets as well as the royal family who adopts him, the power of regular people as well as rich and privileged people.


Prince of Persia didn’t invent this inconsistency, and can hardly be blamed for it. But it does exploit it and do its best to ignore it. The titular hero first appears as a child (played by William Foster), homeless and filthy, scampering through city streets when he’s noticed by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup). Impressed by the boy’s ingenuity and physical prowess (like the video game character on which he’s based, he’s exceedingly nimble when leaping from rooftop to rooftop) as well as his honesty, the king brings him home and raises him alongside his own sons.


When they’re all grown up, the three sons—orphan Dastan (Jake Gyllehnaal) and biological siblings Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle)—throw in together to protect dad’s legacy (that is, his empire, which is ostensibly benevolent under his singular leadership). When this self-defined mission entails the invasion of the kingdom of Alamut, Dastan is reluctant. Though their grumpy Uncle Nizam (Kingsley) has found evidence that Alamut is storing up secret weapons. This allusion to “WMDs” is elaborated as Dastan is increasingly inclined to think these weapons don’t exist, that the “evidence” is a ruse to initiate the invasion, which actually serves another purpose.


Tus and Garsiy are less quick on this uptake, and so disappoint their father—at least until he’s murdered, at which point the boys decide they must exact violent revenge. It so happens that the seem perp is Dastan, suddenly an outlaw when he takes off running, know quite well that he’s never convince the others of his innocence. His escape is aided by his new romantic interest, the beautiful and rather willful Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) of Alamut. She’s also a priestess, secretly assigned to guard a dagger that allows the bearer to turn back time (via a handle that holds and circulates the sands of time), a dagger Dastan picks up without knowing its powers.


This dagger allows Tamina several chances to glance at Dastan’s belt, where he keeps it, and also set up their not-so-witty romantic banter (here you may remember that Prince of Persia wants to be another Jerry Bruckheimer franchise, and so borrows heavily from the successful formula established by Pirates of the Caribbean). As Dastan and Tamina argue over the dagger and how best to keep it from villains who want to abuse its powers and so unhinge time altogether, because the god who invented it will wreak havoc when someone uses the dagger badly).


Their madcap journey entails lots of galloping across vast deserts, some sword-fighting, and even a little bit of special-effected multi-dimensional fluttering when Dastan unleashes the dagger’s force. His first go with it is accidental, then he does it a few more times on purpose, each instance producing a Harry Potter-ish event (director Mike Newell helmed 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), with lights flashing and Dastan’s body dissolving and reappearing while whoever is with him commits an act the dagger allows him to undo. All this sands of time business is even less impressive than it sounds, as both concept and image.


It does, however, galvanize Dastan to get with Tamina, as well as to partner with Sheik Amar and Seso. He needs the whole team to battle the film’s primary villain, who has access to his own magic forces, embodied here by someone called only “the Hassansin Leader” (Gísli Örn Garðarsson). Introduced in a facility that also houses some whirling dervishes—literally whirling as we enter, the camera peering over a railing to look down on this exotic otherness—the Hassansin Leader typifies the film’s inattention to detail: his face is scarred, he wears a black cloak, and so… he’s bad. At least he has a pack of Hassansins to lead. Seso only has his knives.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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