If director Mike Newell were to take a rapper name, it should be ‘Money Shot’ Mike. For over the years, he has been developing the craft of capturing that one moment when the film’s shirtless, sweaty star is in clear focus, slowed to the perfect frame rate so that the audience can marvel in the 60-foot spectacle of an action adventure star. This talent has never been so evident than in his work on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the high-flying, CGI-enhanced story of a man and his ability to mug for the camera in the middle of a big sword fight.
That man is Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Dastan, a once orphaned boy his is plucked out of a marketplace at a young age by the generous king of Persia (Ronald Pickup), finding himself adopted into the royal family. Years later, Dastan — alongside his brothers Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and his uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) — leads an assault upon a mystical holy city that has been reportedly selling weapons to the King’s enemies. There they find Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), the guardian of a powerful dagger that possesses the power to alter the course of history. But after the king is mysteriously killed, Dastan is blamed. And now he and Tamina must go on the run to find out not only who killed his father, but also to unlock the secrets of the dagger.
It’s your standard hero’s journey, but with more Parkour. From moment one, it’s clear that Jake Gyllenhaal is up to the task of playing the rugged underdog Dastan, an honest man trying to clear his name and bravely honor his adopted father. And while the film’s story itself does feel pedestrian at every turn, it earns points for being closely linked to that of the video game upon which it is based. No one ever accused Jordan Mechner’s popular game series of having an inventive narrative, and they won’t start now.
Then again, that was never the appeal of the Prince of Persia game, was it? The appeal was in the visual elements — the high flying action that took place on the rooftops of often nondescript ancient Middle Eastern cities. The story of a warrior’s heart and will to perform unimaginable feats of strength and agility in order to thwart evil. All of that is in this film, even if it isn’t as naturalistic as possible. Of course I’m referring to the heavy doses of theatrical, PG-13 violence that fill this story from end-to-end. All of the jumping, hand-to-hand battling and swash-buckling is done over the top, and it makes for a fun ride. That is, if you can overlook the fact that it’s all juiced up by CGI — and not in a way that makes it blend naturally into the film’s dirty aesthetic. But in a way that is often cartoonish — perhaps even video game-ish. In a sense, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Mike Newell have honored the video game by delivering action that looks one-step removed from the graphics of your Playstation 3. As for whether this is a good thing, it could go either way. In this reviewers opinion, the film’s joyous embrace of the gaudy computerized action — as seen most notably in the aforementioned mugging for the camera — earns it the tag of “fun, but not to be taken seriously.”
Beyond the violence, there are a few notable performances. Gyllenhaal is a beefy, brooding hero who treads water in times of dialog and kicks a bit of tanned behind when necessary. And Gemma Arterton is decidedly prissy and alluring at the same time. And their relationship is as angsty and full of brooding sexual tension as you might expect. It is far more interesting and well-developed than Arterton’s recent conquest with Sam Worthington in Clash of the Titans, if only for the fact that Prince of Persia opts for a more predictable antagonistic love journey for its two leads. Among the supporting characters, Alfred Molina injects the film with a few laughs in the middle of the story as a rascally gambling lord who happens upon Dastan and Tamila at all the wrong moments. He oozes contemporary though, speaking of government oppression and tax evasion. If by the time you first meet his character you aren’t fully convinced that this movie is not interested in being grounded in any sort of reality, you certainly will be.
And therein lies the film’s fatal flaw — it clearly has no desire to take its subject matter seriously. This will rub anyone who is a fan of the game, or a fan of intense sword-and-sandals action, the wrong way. But for everyone else, Prince of Persia will be a surface-level delight. It has action, romance and a pace that allows it to squeak by you before you can realize that it’s not at all a well-crafted story. It also delivers fancy bells and whistles with special effects, some of which are very impressive. And not to mention the distraction of Jake Gyllenhaal with his shirt off. Nothing like a little eye-candy to pull your attention away from groan-worthy dialog and a plot so full of holes that appears to have been decimated by an expert knife-thrower.
In the end, saying that Prince of Persia is a bad movie doesn’t fit. It’s a shallow diversion, but one that accomplished its main goal — to provide 116 minutes of enthralling action and abs. It offers nothing more in return for your time. Then again, it isn’t asking for much, either.
The Upside: Several high-flying action moments that serve as an apt diversion from everything that is wrong with the film’s narrative, dialog and desire to show off Jake Gyllenhaal’s shirtless torso.
The Downside: When you sit back and think about what you’re watching (and enjoying), you may remember that you enjoy being intellectually stimulated by film. That will bring you down from the CGI-induced high really quickly.
On the Side: Before Jake Gyllenhaal was cast in the leading role, both Orlando Bloom and Zac Efron were rumored for the part.