Prince of Persia
By david roark
May 28, 2010
Just when summer blockbusters adapted from comic books and legends couldn’t get any worse, arrives this dim, cheesy, undistinguished action-adventure called Prince of Persia. But like the video game series it’s based upon, this simplistic popcorn flick turns out to be fun, lighthearted entertainment that surmounts a seemingly endless list of flaws through a conscious awareness of them—never taking itself too seriously—and an optimistic worldview to contrast the bleak-just-to-be-bleak garbage so popular in Hollywood today.
Mike Newell, the talented filmmaker behind Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, displays purpose and control early on by establishing a steady, jovial tone and an overly basic premise. Hardly trying to be something it’s not and always attending to its target audience, Newell’s film focuses on rogue prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal sporting a hideous metal band hairstyle), who after being adopted into a royal lineage, finds himself accused of murdering his own father, King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup).
But the man responsible for the murder is his uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley), whose plan is to attain an ancient dagger, which will allow him to unleash the Sands of Time and take over the Persian throne—and eventually the world. His wicked plot is disguised by an attack on Alamut, a city allegedly distributing weapons to the enemy, bringing Tamina (Gemma Arterton), the kingdom’s glowing princess, into the story. She and Dastan then reluctantly join forces to try and stop the villain and return the dagger to safety, falling in love along the way, of course.
The narrative is short, simple and functions more like a video game than an actual work of cinema, yet it works. Unlike recent disappointments Iron Man 2 and Robin Hood, which fail by taking themselves too seriously, Prince of Persia understands its boundaries, laughing at itself alongside the audience. It doesn’t bumble through politics or history too much. It’s merely an excuse for Gyllenhaal to flirt with Arterton, jump off buildings, do backflips, handle swords, and look handsome in the process. And visually, that action and backdrop look just as mesmerizing as the eye candy in Favreau and Scott’s films.
This reimagined Sixth-Century Persia is vividly satisfying. Reminding us of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones franchise and Disney’s first Pirates of the Caribbean film, the visual effects are surreal and imaginative: goofy costumes, sword fighting, sand storms, mighty armies—everything is silly, overstated and attractive.
And for a cheery action flick, the script isn’t awful. While the predictable, oversimple plot is certainly missing necessary elements of storytelling, like, say, a real story, it’s at least cohesive and easy to follow. The dialogue is surprisingly smart, as well. It’s quick and clever, and surely the least cheesy aspect of Newell’s cheesy film. When Dastan and Tamina come face to face, anticipating a kiss, you begin to prepare yourself for some awful, cliché exchanges between the two, but fortunately we get fairly compelling, natural discourse.
To seal the deal, all the actors bring their characters to life. Gyllenhaal (check out a Q&A with him here) has done much better of course, like in Donnie Darko or Brokeback Mountain; given this material, however, he does more than enough, performing honestly and charmingly. Ben Kingsley plays the malevolent Nizam near perfectly, as he has consistently done with similar characters. But in the strongest role of the movie, Alfred Molina, playing an eccentric entrepreneur who races ostriches, performs distinctively, making us laugh every time he open his mouth.
All this positivism probably makes Prince of Persia sound much better than it really is, so don’t get the wrong impression: it’s absolute nonsense. Regardless of its artlessness, nevertheless, the film succeeds as a genre movie not just because it’s well-acted or action-packed, but because it doesn’t try to be anything else. And with so many directors following a trend to push nihilism through cinema—mostly since it’s hip—Newell goes against the grain and provides some breathing room, creating a buoyant, morally uplifting film in the spirit of the past—to confirm there are other lenses to the view the world through besides the hopeless and sinister kind.
Newell has unquestionably accomplished what he set out to do, which is ridiculous, silly and forgettable, but amusing nonetheless.