Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Hmm...Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time...well, since there is a subtitle to the film and it's not a sequel, I guess we can conclude that this movie was meant to launch a new film franchise.  The good news is that there is plenty of source material to base this and future movies on; the bad news is that this is a movie based on a video game, and I've made my opinion on that pretty clear.  And, since it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer --- who has produced everything from the Beverly Hills Cop films to the National Treasure movies --- you can be sure that the movie is a suitably huge and probably dumb action movie.  That's not a bad thing, since dumb action movies are as American as apple pie, rednecks, and anachronistic social conservatism.  Sometimes, it's fun to turn off your brain and watch pretty people do impossible things.

Right off the bat, you know this movie is going to have you rolling your eyes.  You could take the street rat song from Aladdin and it would fit suspiciously well in the opening sequence as a young orphan avoids apprehension by authorities.  That young orphan earns himself an adoption by the good King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), King of Persia, when he stands up to a royal guard that was abusing another street rat.  So let that be a lesson, orphans; if you're not cute enough to get picked by normal people, try attacking a powerful person's security detail.  You will be buried in an unmarked grave for your actions earn their trust and affection.  

Jump ahead in time a bit, and Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is now the fun-loving, rough-and-tumble, but hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold-type Prince of Persia.  His two older brothers (and real Princes) are Tus (Richard Coyle), the eldest and one that tries his best to earn his future crown, and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell), the most aggressive of the family.  On their way to a war that is so important that it is only mentioned once, a spy arrives with information that the sacred city of Alamut is secretly supplying the enemies of Persia with high-end weapons.  American audiences have heard that one before, right?  The brothers and their uncle/advisor Nizam (Ben Kingsley) hold a war council to decide what to do; Dastan votes to continue on to the war their father assigned, but Nizan convinces the others that this weapons threat is important enough to take action immediately.  Through some moderately unlikely and acrobatic heroics, Dastan manages to sneak into the fortified city of Alamut and open the gates, allowing the Persians to take the city with nary a casualty...on their side.  During the brief battle, Dastan defeated a man that was on a mission from the Alamut ruler; his (failed) mission was to guide a particular dagger out of the city and toward safety.  Dastan snagged the dagger and all the props for capturing the city.  As a reward, his father offers him the hand of Alamut's ruler, Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), in marriage.  It is customary to give the King a gift when he enters a new city, but Dastan is no good at that sort of thing, so he gladly takes some fancy robes that Tus offers him for the gift.  However, when King Sharaman dons the robes, it seems that the robes are tainted and the good King dies from what appear to be severe chemical burns.  Who gave the King the robes?  Why, it was the Prince that has no hope of ever being King, but should be pretty happy with his lot in life, since he's not a street peddler!  Blame him!

So, Dastan and Tamina go on the lam.  Why does she accompany him?  Well, Tamina is the guardian of the Sands of Time.  When placed in the glass handle of the dagger Dastan is holding, they can rewind time for the holder.  It's pretty cool, but the dagger only holds a minute's worth of sand, so if you need a mulligan in life, you better act fast with the dagger.  Theoretically, if someone found the sacred cache of time sand in Alamut and used the dagger with it, the time limit would be irrelevant and the user could go back to any part of their life --- of course, that would anger the gods, who would destroy the universe if that ever happened.  Dastan figures out the power in his dagger and realizes that this is the reason for Persia's attack on Alamut, and that the King's men will never find the weapons of mass destruction the spy told them about, because they don't exist.  Someone wants that dagger very badly.  Is it Tus, who has the most to gain and handed the robes to Dastan?  Is it Garsiv, who would need to do a little more additional killing to be king?  Or do the filmmakers think we're idiots?  Seriously, why would Ben Kingsley be in this movie, looking like Jafar, if he wasn't the villain?  And why would the brothers even need to master time?  But no, we're supposed to play along with Dastan as he walks his way down logic street.  Once Dastan's train of thought finally leaves the station, he has to stop the mysterious evildoer from wrecking time and the world.  And maybe, if he's lucky, he'll learn a few things about himself, life, and love.

I'm not much of a Jake Gyllenhaal fan.  Yes, I liked Donnie Darko, too, but I haven't been impressed with anything I've seen him in since (although I haven't gotten around to Brokeback Mountain yet).  He's okay in this movie.  As far as the physicality of his role went, he did a pretty good job.  He appeared to be quite the swashbuckling little Persian and, aside from the impractical haircut (if you're going to have fashionably long hair, you should probably keep it out of your eyes in sword fights).  As far as his acting went...well...he's not terrible, but he's pretty bad.  Specifically, he has a startlingly low supply of charm for a lead character and no chemistry with his romantic interest.  Speaking of whom, Gemma Arterton wasn't much better.  She has more to work with, since she gets to point out what a moron Dastan is for most of the picture, but she is just as convincing as Gyllenhaal when it comes to showing love on-screen.  The acting savior of this movie was Alfred Molina in the supporting role of Sheik Amar, a crafty entrepreneur.  He had energy, charm, and was funny --- all the things you would expect from main characters, but this movie lacks.  Ben Kingsley more or less mailed his performance in, but his uninspired work is still better than most actors on their best day.  Gisli Orn Gardarsson did a decent job as a creepy assassin, but the rest of the cast was just average.  Director Mike Newell continues his eccentric resume (Prince of Persia, Harry Potter, and...Mona Lisa Smile?), but this is definitely not one of his better outings.  I was impressed by the quality of his action sequence direction, but the obviously fake romance between his leads was disappointing from the director of Four Weddings and a Funeral.

But was anyone really expecting amazing acting from this film?  I certainly wasn't.  I was looking for some big, dumb action, and this movie delivers.  The action is pretty good, and it is plentiful.  Most of the more ridiculous action scenes (running up walls, anything remotely acrobatic, etc.) are taken from the video game; in its own way, this movie does a good job staying true to its video game roots and still telling a comprehensible story, "probabaly " better than most video game adaptations.  Aside from the time-pausing scenes, I couldn't tell what stunts Jake Gyllenhaal was doing and what was CGI, so the production values and editing were great.  There were far too many unnecessary slow-motion shots, but that happens in action movies nowadays.  While there was no gore in all this violence, I thought the action was handled pretty well.

Surprisingly, the action doesn't feel like it was the top priority in the movie.  I think they were trying very hard to make a sister franchise to Pirates of the Caribbean.   It's got swashbuckling action and a hero coming of age, it's got a sassy female lead who tries to embody Girl Power, and it even has an amusing and guylinered supporting character with questionable morals in Alfred Molina. How does it stack up?  Well, it's certainly worse than the first Pirates, but I think it was better than the other two.  So, not great, but not terrible.  Here's the thing: this is the story of a Prince of Persia --- my favorite character shouldn't be Alfred Molina.  In Pirates, Johnny Depp stole the show because he's a pirate and pirates steal.  Here, we have two princes in supporting roles that have little more than anger to define their characters; they're definitely not going to be the characters you enjoy watching.  That leaves us with Body by Jake.  His character is not smarter or funnier or stronger than his brothers; he is just supposed to have better morals as his defining trait.  And while that might be a great differentiating point when picking out a husband, it's not really a big deal in an action hero.

Of course, the ridiculousness of the film could be another reason why it falls short of its franchise-mimicking aspirations.  It would be easy to pick this movie's casting apart by accusing it of "whitewashing," but the deed is done, and now it's time to judge.  My overwhelming reaction to this movie is that there are more white people in Persia than in Illinois.  That is one whitebread, cracker empire.  And, apparently, English with a British accent is the language of choice.  Of course it is.  I bet this movie was a huge hit in Iran.  On the other hand, it's not like Aladdin was a multicultural buffet, and this film borrows a lot from the animated classic.  The whole race thing is silly enough to ridicule for the entire running time, but there are ample opportunities to mock this film.  I bet you didn't know that there Persian ninjas are called Hassansins, probably because it rhymes with "assassins."  Oh, and the lead ninja is from Norwegia, which makes him probably the least ethnically-correct ninja ever.  Oh, and did you know that you could take a booby trap to safety?  That is stupider than Indiana Jones finding a doorway to hide in as the giant boulder rolls past him.  And I'm not even going to go in detail about the ostrich jockeys --- here's an actual quote from this movie: "Did you know that ostriches have suicidal tendencies?"  What?  WHAT?!?  How does that line find its way into a $150+ million dollar movie?  And that's the best line in the whole movie.

Prince of Persia has solid action and an amazing plot (by video game movie standards), but pretty awful characters and a cliche-ridden script.  In my eyes, I call that a wash.  However, the ending (hello, deus ex machina) is bad enough to tip this into sub-par territory.  Not that I expected anything less from a plot device that goes back in time, but it was pretty bad.
However, this is a great movie to laugh at.  It's very watchable and the enormous budget just makes the film's failures even more amusing.  I grant this film Lefty Gold status, as it is easily the most entertaining bit of Hollywood fluff I have ridiculed in the past year.  As Lefty Gold, The Sands of Time deserves


  1. What about Jake in Brothers? I thought he was really solid in that movie, though I am a Jake apologist (blame Donny D).

  2. I haven't seen Brothers yet, but I was intrigued by Tobey going back to the dramatic roles of yesteryear.

    And Jake may be a fine actor. I just haven't seen anything I liked him in in about nine years. But my choice of viewing material may be partially to blame for that.

  3. Definitely check out Brothers. It is a very solid flick. And when is the last time you saw Bubble Boy?