[21 September 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
At a crucial moment in Jerry Bruckheimer’s wannabe mega-blockbuster, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (now out on DVD and Blu-ray from the House of Mouse), an expert knife wielder working with the shady Sheik Amar (a spirited Alfred Molina) turns to the cheery chatterbox and says “Has anyone ever told you that you talk too much?” In one important way, the character could be addressing everyone in the cast. From its expositional overdoses to its desire to spell everything out - emotion, conspiracy, threat - in reams of repetitive dialogue, this is one of the talkiest popcorn films ever, so conversationally driven in fact that it almost derails and disintegrates under the weight of its words.
Luckily director Mike Newell found a cast capable of making up for the endless blather, building a strong bond between themselves and the audience. Then, he added some expert action to seal the deal. Sure, the constant careening off walls and pillars and rooftops is more District B13 than Disney, but when you’ve got the man who made Pirates of the Caribbean into an entertainment zombie (read: almost impossible to kill), and a video game basis to guide your spectacle, we should expect a little unrealistic bravura. Luckily, Prince of Persia has action o’plenty, and excellent actors to see us through the occasional silliness.
When he was a young orphan, Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) was taken in by King Sharaman and made part of his family, along with natural born sons Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell), and their ‘uncle’ Nizam (Ben Kingsley). Years later, the entire Persian army decides to invade a Holy City where Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) guards a magical dagger that can actually manipulate and rewind reality, if only briefly. With it, someone could actually unleash Armageddon, using the weapon as a means of letting loose the Sands of Time, a force from the Gods meant to wipe out mankind.
When Sharaman is murdered and Dastan is framed for the crime, he must discover who’s behind the deadly deed. With the reluctant help of Tamina, and the additional aid of a slave market gambler (Molina), he must stop the culprit and prevent the end of all life on the planet. Thus begins a series of chases and quests not unlike the kind conjured up by your favorite Playstation console title, and this is part of Prince of Persia ‘s problem. When it sticks with the stunts, when it focuses on the fighting and the various fisticuffs, all is right with the Summer cinema season. Newell, while not known for his prowess in such a genre, actually delivers, keeping the audience engaged as his motion picture pawns bounce across his celluloid gameboard.
They are joined by some decent special effects, an attempt to give everything a nice Sixth Century desert vibe. Even the ending - which is a mess, narratively - has all the usual bombastic bells and whistles. Sure, the Dagger of Time sequences are beyond cheesy, resembling a combination of the Balrog from Lord of the Rings and a really gloomy sandstorm. Add in the ancient standby of running the film backwards and you’ve got something that smacks of a real lack of imagination. Indeed, outside of all the French architectural gymnastics, there’s not much new here. Bruckheimer clearly believes in the new recipe he’s crafted, a box office blueprint that includes a sexy leading man, tempting female eye candy, a requisite baddie, a bunch of solid ancillary characters, and a stand out player who vamps directly to the viewers early and often.
Here, Gyllenhaal is our Arabian knight, not quite Jack Sparrow, but brawny enough to get by. Arterton puts Keira Knightley’s bony curves to shame, while Kingsley channels the last decade of his career as the potential villain. This just leaves Coyle and Kebbell to bat clean-up, and they are very good at suggesting a close familial bond. Toss in Molina who runs his mouth to mega-distraction and you’ve got something that should click with anyone missing the adventures of the Black Pearl and its mainstream motley crew. Of course, Prince of Persia doesn’t have the same level of derring-do, nor does it offer the inherent whimsy that comes from playing pirate, but there’s enough here to keep a sweltering demographic cool and collected.
So what doesn’t work? Well, the storyline stumbles more often than not, the ending a necessity but also a borderline gyp, and the whole mythology involving the dagger, it’s abilities, what it can and cannot do, and how it effects all human life is worse than wonky. It often sounds like the screenwriters are pulling it out of their Atari it as they go along, desperate to make sense out of a video game series that had hours - and multiple game plays - to get its plot points across. While Newell does do a great job of giving us a cursory establishment of the relationships (enough to give the finale some oomph, even) and a basic goal-oriented conceit, there just not enough happening in between the battles. There’s no Herculean tasks, no major obstacles to overcome. Even the arrival of the deadly, demonic Hassansins does little except up the antagonist factor, their proposed supernatural powers easily undermined by a bit of brute force.
Fortunately, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time consistently finds just enough spectacle (which can be underwhelming on the small screen, FYI) to keep from being a complete failure and when you add in the solid performances and journeyman-like direction, the good far outweighs the bad. But don’t expect perfect. After all, this is a video game adaptation we are talking about here, and their track record is shaky at best. You’ll also have to wade through endless minutes of explanation, conversations that seem to thwart the very purpose of presenting a thrill a minute, edge of your seat bit of excitement. Such a contradictory concept would destroy your standard epic, but then Prince of Persia is not your typical motion picture marathon. Had everything worked right, it would be great. As it is, it’s very good - that is, when it remembers to shut its mouth.