By: Joe Utichi, originally posted on May 11th, 2010.
The title might be familiar to any of those who've played the phenomenally successful videogames, and its script might be credited to those games' creator Jordan Mechner, but the latest film to unspool this summer season, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, is still no more or less than an all-out Jerry Bruckheimer adventure. His fondness for regular beats of action, idiosyncratic comic relief and a love-hate relationship between the lead couple are all present and accounted for, and at times you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd wandered into Pirates 4.
And that's no bad thing, because what Bruckheimer does best is deliver entertaining summer adventure for the multiplex masses, even if it does follow a tried and true formula. If it ain't broke, as they say, don't fix it. To that end Prince of Persia is a success; it's never less than a fun twist on sword and sandals epics, and while its band of misfits may not be quite up to Jack Sparrow's standards, they're still plenty to see you through its comfortable runtime.
Adopted Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the Persian army's golden boy. His dexterity and intellect make him the perfect candidate to lead an assault on a city suspected of harbouring powerful weapons. It's during the siege that he meets Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), whose protests about the city's innocence fall on the deaf ears of Dastan's brother, Prince Tus (Richard Coyle), who claims her as his wife.
But when he gives Dastan a gift to present to the king, and it turns out to be laced with poison, Dastan's forced into exile. Along the way he discovers the rare dagger he claimed in battle has magical sand flowing through it which reverses time for a brief period. It's then he realizes the truth about the motives behind their invasion and his brother's deceit. He turns to his uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) and sets about clearing his name with Tamina in tow, who's determined to return the dagger to her people. But has he got the right man?
It's a plot which runs true enough at least to the spirit of the Prince of Persia games, and features an interesting, if slightly awkward, twist on one of the more original aspects of the digital versions. In the game the Sands of Time allowed Dastan to correct an otherwise fatal error and continue on his path, a clever take on the traditional videogame mechanic of replaying a level until you got it right. In the film they become something of an on-tap deus ex machina. There's a limited amount of sand in the dagger, but you can rest assured when Dastan needs a little to avoid a fatal encounter, it'll be there.
So there's a little less sense of peril to the picture than might perhaps be demanded of a film designed to keep us engaged until its finale. However, with Mechner's pen behind the screenplay, there are still plenty of nods to the Prince of Persia series (and other video games) to keep fans amused, and it's clear that a huge amount of care and attention has gone into finding a tone in keeping with the game's spirit.
Jake Gyllenhaal is well suited to Dastan, and has plenty of the prerequisite charm necessary for a character like this, but he's sadly the only cast member worth getting excited about. Gemma Arterton feels like she's wandered in from another movie – Clash of the Titans, perhaps – and continues to prove that her talents are better suited to smaller movies.
But Ben Kingsley is the real duff note. Something of an ever-present peacekeeper between the king's brothers as the film opens, it's in the second half, when the plot falls on him, that Kingsley's character starts to disappoint. The part is underwritten, but it doesn't help that Kingsley's attitude seems to suggest the whole adventure is rather beneath him, and since the movie's finale relies on us buying that character, his apathy further removes from the sense of excitement in these closing scenes.
A rather curious allusion to the Iraqi invasion – when Dastan and co. similarly invade a city to uncover weapons of mass destruction which turn out not to be there – will no doubt be debated to death as Prince of Persia unspools for critics, but what we're ultimately left with here is a rather curious beast. In parts this is a wholesome and enjoyable action adventure, with plenty to admire. It's certainly much improved on this summer's earlier effort, Clash of the Titans, and it seems well-placed to start up a franchise that might turn out to be a little more disciplined in its second outing.
Ultimately, though, there's too much wrong with the film for it to really engage. You'll want to take the journey, but it'll go out of its way to make sure you can't quite manage it, and as the credits roll the real sense is one of overwhelming disappointment at an opportunity missed.