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Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – Review

Film’s opening VO: “And he became a Prince…of Persia”

Yes of course I am Persian, how dare you imply otherwise

*Cue Title card*

Don’t you miss the days they’d force the film’s title into the dialogue no matter how awkward it sounded? No me neither really. So begins the journey of Dastan, street orphan turned Prince (of Persia). It has all the hallmarks of a potentially rubbish film. Adapted from a video game; purposefully set up as a franchise starter; co-scripted by the writer of ‘Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights’ and directed by Mike Newell – a man with little experience directing blockbusters or action; other than ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’. How did it end up? Well, it’s not rubbish. Not much else either.

I’d started to write a brief synopsis of the plot but there’s actually more of it than I can be bothered. Conceptually it’s a fairly simplistic plot and there’s not any depth to it, but lots of ‘things’ happen, ‘things’ that would take up too many paragraphs to explain, ‘things’ that just kind of come out of nowhere. So either watch the trailer or read a synopsis online, the basics are: Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is accused of murdering his adopted father (a ridiculously quick accusation) and goes on the run with a Princess (Gemma Arterton) who protects a dagger that can reverse the flow of time. Dastan wants to discover who really killed his father; Princess wants to return dagger to ancient place because if they don’t something bad will happen; the evil bad guy wants the dagger. And the whole film plays out exactly as you’d imagine, I’m not asking for twists and turns every 5 minutes, but if you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen the film.

Whilst it’s adapted from a video game the story is mostly the creation of the scriptwriter, it’s taken the prince and the reversing time dagger and Persia, and then built its own story around it. So knowing that why on earth does the film plot play out like a video game? It’s a very noticeable action sequence/exposition/action sequence/exposition etc structure, with bits of information that could have been revealed earlier held back till whenever the writer deems it ‘dramatic’. It could be argued that makes up most blockbuster plot structures, but in Prince of Persia it’s distractingly noticeable and It makes the characters look stupid. The Princess withholds information from Dastan for no reason other than so the dramatic reveal can be half way through the film. And do we really need to sit through another film where the bad guy has been established in the advertisement, trailers and the films shoddy telegraphing of it – but then treats it like a twist to the audience? Just have Kingsley being evil from the start, it can be a surprise for the characters, but it feels so pointless and plodding to pretend to hide it from the audience.

Some of this could be forgiven if the action sequences were up to much, but they’re typical of post-Bourne action; overly edited, shakey cam, far too close shots that only helps to hide the action choreography. There’s often a poor sense of geography to the sequences, bafflingly so at the start of the film when it actually gives a little fly through shot of the area he’s about to do some parkour though, yet when it comes to it I got confused where he was heading towards, what direction and who he was fighting due to the camera work. Ah yes the parkour, the games were renowned for allowing the player to run along walls, swing on beams and jump over large gaps. Nearly a decade later and parkour has seeped into public conscience and cinema, most noticeably in ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘District B13’. So it’s kind of depressing to see it so often ‘faked’ in Prince of Persia. For all the claims that Gyllenhaal had been trained in it, nearly every shot of him doing any is over edited to obscure his face, lots of shots of stunt doubles feet running along poles. Each sequence of jumps or athleticism has clearly been performed a bit at a time and then edited together. When we’ve seen films with single camera shots of parkour and other amazing feats done for real it’s boring and unimpressive to see it faked or obscured in Prince of Persia.

About half way through the film the Hassansin’s turn up, these are assassins hired by the villain to kill the Prince. They’re introduced in training grounds, each of them swathed in black robes and practicing with their unique (and possibly not historically accurate, did they have weapons made of CGI back then?) fantasy weapon. I’ve gotta be honest, I really like these guys. The leader of them is pretty cheesy in his attempts to act eeevil and mysterious, but I love that it feels like an old kung fu film concept. A team of warriors training in a temple each with a unique weapon that they’ll then use to attack the hero; it’s silly but really fun. And it pays off towards the end of the film as the best directed action sequences (throwing knives!) involves one of the Hassansin’s versus one of the good guy side characters. Yeah, the best action sequences; the most interesting; the one that involves the best build up of tension; the best sense of geography and a clear “this is what I need and this is why it’s important” – is between a side hero and side villain.

The script itself is, again, nothing surprising. It connects the dots and talks of “destiny” whilst throwing out the odd “I need to return the dagger to the sacred stone” plot crap that comes out of nowhere and is the fantasy genres equivalent of Star Trek’s techno babble. (Is it just me or does it kind of take away from the hero’s decision to save the world when films are always harping on about it being their destiny? I’d kinda respect one who decided he couldn’t give a fuck and let the world blow up) Dastan and the Princess have the usual screwball inspired “ooh we hate each other and exchange witty barbs but love each other by the end” relationship and Gyllenhaal and Arterton just about make it work. In fact Gyllenhaal is one of the films saving graces, he plays the dashing rogue well and a lot of the time when the film works it’s because of him. Arterton is ok, she doesn’t have much to work with other than giving plot exposition. I think she’s meant to be a “strong” female character because she keeps nagging the prince (of Persia) and trading, sometimes funny, repartee with him. I’m not asking for every female character to be just as physically capable as the male, but she’s also meant to be the Guardian of the sand/dagger/time, yet seems to have no knowledge of fighting or self defence and has spent her life living in a castle with little knowledge of the outside world. Dropped the ball on that one sand gods to be honest, no wonder it was stolen. No matter how much they try to present her as on level with the Prince (by of course using feminine skills like lying and telling him she knows she’s pretty) she’s still a princess who needs saving, and in the story they’ve created it makes no sense. Alfred Molina provides comic support as a dodgy dealing “small business owner”. His work is good and he’s often funny (and his inclusion brings with it ostrich racing, more films need ostrich racing) yet at the same time his constant talk of taxes and being a small business owner can be distractingly modern; like a used car salesman somehow ended up in the wrong century.

Oh yeah, Jake Gyllenhaal’s English accent is a lot better than Russell Crowe’s in ‘Robin Hood’. Still not entirely sure why he has an English accent, I guess English accents sound more olde tyme? (Though seriously, I guess it was because the rest of the main cast were English so it made more sense for Gyllenhaal to match their accents, perhaps)

The dagger being able to reverse time is an interesting concept with an obvious flaw, how do you maintain any tension if any action can be reversed? They try to avoid this by setting some rules, that it can only reverse one minute, and that it needs to be replenished with sands of time after use. Sadly they don’t seem to stick to these rules but instead use it whenever it’s narratively convenient. In the last twenty minutes it seems they even forgot that problem and the story loses any semblance of caring about what’s going on in the film. I’ll avoid spoilers but suffice to say the filmmakers seem to be saying the films events really don’t matter, it’s a huge misstep and I’m surprised they went through with it. Arterton’s Princess in particular gets the short straw and is reduced to even less of a character.

Everything in the film has been done better (and in the case of the parkour, done for real) in other films. The action is poorly shot, the plot shoddy and awkwardly structured, the ending stupid, character’s two dimensional. There are some fun parts to it, Gyllenhaal sells me on the character and I wouldn’t be against seeing Prince of Persia 2: Havana Nights in a couple of years time. But I don’t think I’d ever choose to sit through the first one again. The film desperately wants to be the start of another ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ style franchise; family friendly action adventure with humour. The problem is that film did it better. I know that not all summer blockbusters can be ‘The Dark Knight’, but now they can’t even be ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’? Prince of Persia provides some entertainment, but you’ll have forgotten about it within an hour.

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Filed under Fantasy, Film Reviews, Summer Blockbuster