A film review by Craig J. Koban May 30, 2010


2010, PG-13, 116 mins.


Dastan: Jake Gyllenhaal / Tamina: Gemma Arterton / Nizam: Ben Kingsley / Sheik: Amar Alfred Molina / Garsiv: Toby Kebbell

Directed by Mike Newell / Written by Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard / Based on the video game by Jordan Mechner.

I will concede one thing to Jerry Bruckheimer. 

He certainly showed me. 

I have made a habit of lambasting the uber-film producer of mass-marketed, empty-headed schlock in the past.  I certainly believed that – near the beginning of the last decade – he sunk to new creative lows when he announced that he was going to make a film based on something as trivial as a Disney theme park ride.  Yet, call me the short-sighted fool, because he took a barely-there premise and produced not one, but three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films that went on to gross nearly $3 billion collectively.  That, and the films were quite good and showcased an Oscar nominated – and late career defining – role for Johnny Depp.  

So, yes, he showed me. 

Well, Bruckheimer is at it again – trying to show me and my fellow critics – that he can put lightning in the bottle twice and launch a new film franchise based on video game.  Conventional wisdom shows that if you could take a paltry concept of a theme park ride and stretch it out to well over six hours of narrative, then you certainly could do the same thing for Jordan Mechner’s PRINCE OF PERSIA video game trilogy.  Bruckheimer’s mega million dollar financed PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME does not even hide its connections – both literally and superficially – to the PIRATES trilogy.   Yet, that is part of the problem with PERSIA: it hopes – and sets up massive expectations – that it will be the cinematic heir apparent of the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow, but it’s very clear that PERSIA is not in the same league. 

I think that there is some noble-minded focus here to revive the sort of gee-whiz, swashbuckler derring-do of the adventure heroes of yesteryear (like Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks) in PRINCE OF PERSIA.  Yet, in trying to replicate that essence, the script (by Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard) and direction (by Mike Newell) forgets to infuse some sass and energy in the proceedings.  Yes, we get set pieces that are every part PIRATES’ equal and the film is a triumph of art design, but PRINCE OF PERSIA feels too bloated, overstuffed, and emotionally lacking.  The script meanders around looking for an anchor to guide the proceedings forward, the action is sometimes awkwardly staged and choreographed, and, most importantly, the main hero of the film, Prince Dastan, is simply not a compelling protagonist.  Especially when compared to Depp’s devilishly capricious and perversely jolly rogue in the PIRATES films, Dastan here is a dull and lifeless poser.   

Maybe the problem is with the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role.  There is not doubt that he is one of the finest young actors in contemporary films, but here he essentially lets the wardrobe and his sculpted body do most of the acting.  Sporting an Aladin-esque costume, a bronzed suntan, a rocking sick pack and chiseled biceps, and a very odd accent and an equally odd wig, Gyllenhaal certainly looks the part of his swords and sandals action hero, but he never really inhabits him and makes the character memorable.  Gyllenhaal does have a sort of mischievous edge as an actor– there are instances here as Dastan where he shows a sly grin and wink to the audience – but he rarely makes the persona as high spirited and irreverently seditious as he could have been.  Gyllenhaal is a capable performer, but he is just in the wrong film here.

The hero’s story itself perhaps takes itself too seriously as well.  After we get some mournfully heavy-handed title cards about the power of destiny, we are introduced to the Persian Empire in the 6th Century where a very young Dastan is a lowly street urchin trying to make his way in the world.  Ancient Persia is ruled over by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) and he is always flanked by his loyal advisors: there is his brother, Nizam (Ben Kingsley), the King’s oldest son and heir, Tus (Richard Coyle) and his other son, Garsiv (Tony Kebbell).  After Daston impresses the King with his courage and nimbleness during a market skirmish with his men, the King decides to adopt the boy, despite the fact that he has “no royal blood and no eye for the throne.”   

The film teleports itself to the present during which the Persian army (led by Tus) invades a holy city and manages to capture the princess, Tamina (the exquisitely luminous Gemma Arterton of CLASH OF THE TITANS and QUANTUM OF SOLLACE).  When the King arrives he decides to make Tamina Dastan’s first wife, much to her chagrin and to his surprise.  However, before the pair can have their arranged marriage the King is viciously poisoned and murdered and a conspiracy is afoot to make Dastan look like the quilty party.  In a desperate attempt to clear his name and restore his honor among his people, Dastan escapes the city with Tamina in tow.  While on the run, though, Dastan’s quest to prove his innocence is made more difficult with the appearance on a mystical and all-powerful dagger that – when a highly convenient button on its hilt is pressed – allows the holder to bend back time and right wrongs…or if in the wrong hands…put wrongs where once went right. 

The central and budding romance between Dastan and Tamina is about as ham-infested and predictable as one might gather, and the only hint of sexual tension between the pair during the film is with many obligatory “will they kiss, or won’t they?” moments.  Arterton, to her credit, is an inordinately luscious and gorgeous woman, and she most definitely looks the part of her princess (that, and she has considerable more feistiness here than she did in CLASH OF THE TITANS).  Both her and Gyllenhaal do have some decent moments of easygoing chemistry with each other that harkens back to the spunky frivolity of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in the first two MUMMY films, but the script places their relationship on pure autopilot.  I am also quite sure that 6th Century Persian men never, ever uttered such banal modern day groaners like, “You’re not my type” to a woman.   

The rest of the narrative around them unfolds with a greatly inconsistent pace.  The film is certainly not long at 116 minutes, but the sluggish pacing of the script makes it feel longer.  One problem I did have was with the incredulous allusions the story makes towards modern day conflicts.  For example, Dustan and the Persians falsely invade the city of Alamut where enemies are hiding ancient weapons of mass destruction.  There is also a conman character that despises how the government taxes him; he just wishes that the bureaucrats would just leave him alone to his fixed ostrich races.  Writers should never weigh down what should be a light-hearted adventure serial like this with pretentious allusions to the Iraq War and current US domestic policies.  Geez. 

Then, of course, there is the way that time travel is used in the film, and I will not get into a heated diatribe about the nature of paradox inherent with all time travel films.  Yet, what I will say is that the manner with which the writers lazily use temporal trekking here is kind of shameful.  PRINCE OF PERSIA should be taught at film schools for how to use time travel to write one’s way out of just about any problematic area.  The ending of the film, which I will not spoil, is essentially one where the whole story leading up to it is basically whipped clean like it never happened.  The problem with the Dagger of Time is that once you know the basics of how it works and how powerful it is, it all but drains out tension and intrigue in the story.  Even when certain prominent characters clearly die you know they won’t really be dead for long. 

Mike Newell is one of the more interesting directors working today, especially if you follow his eclectic film resume: he made the landmark Brit romcom FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, the very underrated American gangster film DONNIE BRASCO, and he even helmed one of the HARRY POTTER films.  Participating in THE GOBLET OF FIRE should have made him a seasoned choice for PERSIA, but as reliably as he combines live action and CGI effects here, Newell exacerbates the production with his inability to stage action and stunt sequences with precision and clarity.  Instead of framing the battles, skirmishes, and Dastan’s Parkour dexterity with fluidity and poise, Newell uses a lot of unnecessary slow-motion effects and staccato editing to make what should have been rousing sequences a bit too murky and confusing. 

Not all of THE PRINCE OF PERSIA is misguided: The film does have a lush, sepia-toned, and epic look and feel (John Seale’s cinematography has a foreboding and rugged beauty for capturing the astonishing Moroccan landscape).  I also thanked the movie Gods that they film was not given a shortsighted and hasty 3D upcovert (the somewhat incomprehensible action scenes here would have been a disaster with a third dimensional retrofit).  Then there is the very inspried casting of Alfred Molina, who single-handedly steals the film from everyone with his eccentric, duplicitous, profit-loving, and sniveling Sheikh Amar, who is very possessive and protective of his prized ostrich racers.  He plays the broad role broadly with just the right balance of theatricality and whimsy.  It’s too bad that the rest of the actors didn’t follow his suit, because then PRINCE OF PERSIA could have been a breezier and more digestible video game-turned Bruckheimer tent pole summer franchise.  Kingsley, for example, is a gruff and tedious bore in the film: I guess you should always be weary of a film that boasts an Academy Award winner sporting a Van Dyke and massive amounts of eye-liner.

Sorry, Bruckheimer.  I need more convincing this time to prove me wrong.   

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