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Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME

Rating

Director
Mike Newell
Screenplay
Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard (Video Game: Jordan Mechner)
Length
116 min.
Starring
Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Steve Toussaint, Toby Kebbell, Richard Coyle, Ronald Pickup, Reece Ritchie, Gísli Örn Garðarsson
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.

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Review
There are some movies you find yourself wanting to like while several elements make it really hard for you to do so. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is easily one of those types of films.

Set in a fictitious version of the ancient Persian Empire, a street orphan’s pluck earns him the favor of King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), leader of the expanding kingdom. So much is his favor that he adopts the child as his own son, his third.

Fast forward a few years, Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a daring and sometimes foolish young man who rebels often and earns the ire of his more level-headed brothers Tus (Richard Coyle), Sharaman’s well-balanced eldest son, and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell), Sharaman’s hot-headed militant son. However, they remain the strongest of allies despite their mutual frustrations.

After the three brothers and the king’s brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley) intercept an illicit shipment from the holy city of Alamut, an invasion is launched that displays Dastan’s skilled abilities as a strategist and his physical acrobatic prowess leading the troops to victory, even if done against his brothers’ orders.

During the encounter, Dastan kills one of the Alamut guards who possesses an intricately-designed dagger. This dagger, as he later discovers, enables him to turn back time when using a powerful sand held within the hilt of the dagger. He must then attempt to retrieve more sand so that he can turn back time and stop the assassination of his adoptive father, a crime for which he receives the blame.

That few of the cast look in the least bit Middle Eastern, we accept their highly-tanned appearances for the sake of credibility. And these movies are often spoken in English for obvious reasons, but do all foreign accents have to be British? It’s a minor pet peeve of mine when American films use the British accent for nearly every ancient nationality.

Gyllenhaal’s accent is the most offensive of all of them in the picture, which is one of the many elements of his performance that ring false. His roguish glances and smirks are too playful and disingenuous to be appropriate to the character, his wisecracks are delivered lazily and the totality of his performance feels like he’s shouting to the audience “I’m doing this for the money!” Gyllenhaal does have a certain style and personality to all of his performances, but with his far better work in films like Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain to look back to, one can’t help but wonder if he didn’t really care about putting too much into this character.

Gemma Arterton, who plays Tamina, the willful leader of the city of Alamut and one of the dagger’s guardians, is only slightly changed from her performance in this year’s other period blockbuster-in-design Clash of the Titans. There, she showed very little emotion and admirably conveyed her character’s advisory nature. Here, she throws in a little more sass in for her headstrong Tamina. It’s not a bad performance, but her work in Clash was easily superior.

Most of the rest of the cast is roughly average, but two honored thespians deserve some dishonor for their work. Ben Kingsley has bounced so quickly back and forth between high quality and low quality work that we shouldn’t expect much different. And it’s in his blockbusters where he eschews dramatic tension and subtlety for abject transparence. You don’t have to know much about the plot and could probably have just watched the trailers to learn all about Nizam, and even after watching the film, there isn’t anything you don’t already know.

The second actor delivering a weak performance here is Alfred Molina who plays a lawless sheik from the Valley of Slaves who shows up simply for a little combination of comic relief, plot roadblock and experienced advisor. Molina has proven before he can deliver an outstanding performance in a big budget spectacle as his Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 is a stellar achievement. Here he’s just mouthing the words and collecting a paycheck. Is there a reason? Yes.

But where does the problem lie? Is it the director? The screenplay? The studio? It’s a bit hard to pin down, but it could be a combination of all three considering we know that most of the principles in the film can deliver solid and engaging performances. Director Mike Newell has never been a great director. As a matter of fact, many of his films have been fair-to-middling entertainment, barely recognizable as acting vehicles. So, it should come as little surprise that there’s nothing exceptional or non-standard in the film. None of the major visual effects sequences in the film are worth noting, the collapsing floor sequence previewed in the trailer is the perfect example of how boring some of his scenes are. Now, early segments, such as the one where Dastan and his band scale the wall of Alamut have pacing, tension and balance, but after that, things seem to just slide downhill.

The screenplay is certainly a weakness. What I’ve found with most live-action films relying on more than two scribes, this film is written by Boaz Yakin (Dirty Dancing 2, From Dusk Till Dawn 2), Doug Miro (The Uninvited) and Carlo Bernard (The Uninvited), is going to have serious narrative issues, focusing on choppy bits of entertainment and stale one-liners. This group’s particular strengths are in making a stale plot even more tiring. There is no suspense. You know the resolution long before it unspools. Even when delving into blockbusters, a compelling and inventive plot that doubles back on itself and makes the audience think can still provide plenty of excitement. The Lord of the Rings and The Dark Knight are perfect examples of how to parley a blockbuster story into an involving narrative. While most are familiar with and know what to expect from Rings, Dark Knight had enough twists and turns to make an M. Night Shyamalan film feel like a game of Go Fish (though, that’s really not as hard you might imagine).

But, the biggest offender is and always will be the studio. In their demand for accessibility and broad appeal, they threaten to turn away hardcore fans who are wanting something more from their big budget features. Although many will see it once, few will provide repeat business, which is the main reason most box office champions rely on.

The Prince of Persia is a film I wanted to like. The visual effects are strong (with a few minor blemishes), the settings are beautiful, but there’s nothing here that really differentiates it from any other film of its genre or its boxing class. It’s your formulaic summer blockbuster that deserves better than it gets.
Review Written
June 4, 2010
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Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

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  1. Haha!! The hook on rotten tomatoes was BRILLIANT! “you wonder if you’re watching populist director like Ronald Emmerich trying to tackle a complex author like Dostoevsky” You hooked me in with that most ludicrous line, comparing the story of the Prince of Persia videogame to Dostoyevsky… I should have known. The review was actually really well written and I found no further absurdity, so you musta been trollin’


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