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Film Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010; Directed by Mike Newell)

Following onscreens titles spewing platitudes about destiny and lives linked through time, a credulous voiceover reveals the setting for this inadequate offering from the Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer action-adventure blockbuster factory: Persia, “a land far away”. Presumably not a land far away from, say, Persia, but it’s half a world away from the middling American imaginations that concocted this half-baked Orientalist adaptation of the Arabian-themed video game series.

This is a quasi-fantastical, roughly medieval Persia similar to the one featured in the games (most obviously the recent quadrilogy of wall-hopping, puzzle-solving, scimitar-swinging entries from Montreal’s Ubisoft). Persia is a vast empire that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush, and is ruled by the wise and just King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup). Advised by his shrewd brother Nazim (Ben Kingsley), the aging Sharaman has handed control of his armies to his three sons, the youngest of which is Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a wily but empathetic orphaned urchin from the streets of the capital that the magnanimous king adopted and raised as his own.

Now grown to manhood, Dastan is a daring and reckless athletic warrior; while his brother princes take sober counsel over whether or not to besiege the holy city of Alamut, he’s engaged in a bareknuckle boxing match. In the eventual assault (Nazim conveniently produces a shipment of illicit arms captured leaving Alamut for Persia’s enemies, convincing the princes to attack), Dastan distinguishes himself, clever and acrobatically breaching a side-gate and heading off a large counterattack by the Alamutians that leads to the Persian capture of the city with minimal bloodshed.

But the famous victory is only the beginning of Dastan’s trials and tribulations. The capture of Alamut is the opening chess move in Nazim’s Machiavellian plot to seize the throne of Persia. He next frames Dastan for the murder of the king with the gift of a poisoned prayer robe, driving the adopted son into flight from his fellow princes. Elder heir Tus (Richard Coyle) becomes the new ruling monarch and puts a price on the head of his apparently seditious sibling; it was Tus who suggested that Dastan gift the poisoned robe to their father, and so it’s him that Dastan suspects of masterminding the coup. With Dastan on the run, the new king and Nazim begin searching beneath Alamut for the forges that made the swords, the proverbial smoking gun of the city’s treachery.

Dastan soon learns from the princess who presides over Alamut’s holy relics (Gemma Atherton) that it’s quite likely they’re after something else, however. Before fleeing into exile, Dastan comes into possession of a gilt dagger with mystical powers to turn back time. The magical dagger becomes the object of pursuit for Dastan, Nazim, and Princess Tamina, with the power to change the past, to destroy the world, or to prevent either option hanging in the balance.

The quest takes Dastan and Tamina through generic mainstay settings such as desert dunes and oases, Arabesque urban marketplaces, the frosty highlands of the Kush, and to a climactic, time-travelling showdown over a subterranean hourglass containing the titular temporal sands. There’s a drawn-out and lame attempt at comic relief involving a shifty sheik (Alfred Molina) with purposely anachronistic libertarian views who runs an ostrich-racing racket in a secluded valley. “We run races on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” he tells Dastan, although properly speaking, Persians don’t have Tuesdays and Thursdays, but then who’s counting (except, you know, Persians)?

If you’ve got even half a brain in your head, there’s barely enough here to convince you to count, either. The dialogue alternates between stilted, high-flown nobilityspeak and tone-deaf misfired humour. The plot meanders along in the wake of the dagger’s travels, without particular dramatic impact; a cleverer filmmaker than Mike Newell might have made better narrative use of the dagger’s time-rewinding powers, but once the tantalizing ability is established, it’s not used again until the last act.

The protagonist Dastan is characterized as a physically gifted lout with a heart of gold, but even in his robust simplicity he’s far too trusting of his devious vizier uncle (“Don’t trust him, Jake! He’s Ben Kingsley!”) and too quick to blame his bosom brother for their father’s assassination. The action is frequent but uninspired; only the acrobatic bursts are at all memorable, the Errol Flynn/Douglas Fairbanks wall-climbing and rooftop-hopping acts of derring-do that were such a giddy feature of the gameplay of The Sands of Time and that translate well to the screen when they’re allowed the room to do so.

Gyllenhaal has spent some time in the gym in order to be able to embody such an athletic Persian beefcake, no doubt, and his bashful boyish grin is worth a hundred action-hero one-liners on the rare occasion that it’s appropriately employed. But this just ain’t his scene, and in between his displays of consummate professionalism, his faint embarrassment is palpable. Kingsley is better than this menacing villainous foreigner stuff, but it’s been a while since he’s done much else so maybe he’s really not. Atherton is lovely and her character’s sacred guardian role doesn’t quite conform to the usual gender clichés (though it doesn’t upend them either). But the rom-com pas-a-deux with Gyllenhaal, the “she hates him but then learns to love him” nonsense, is more conventional and burdensome to the charm of both actors.

Some critical affront was taken upon the film’s release concerning its Orientalism, its flirtation with Middle Eastern stereotypes, and its employment of Caucasian actors as putative Persians. Although the appeal to an audience’s collective sense of far-flung exoticism is (un)pure Old Hollywood, Prince of Persia treads lightly around anything resembling contemporary politics. The plot turns on classic dynastic power plays and Shakespearean throne-seizing schemes, and nothing resembling the political or social issues of modern Iran or the Arab world are analogized in the film (nor should they be, as this is a silly and unsubstantial exercise).

And even though the world of Prince of Persia encompasses matters of faith and holiness, the exact parametres of these questions are not made explicit. The Alamutians are characterized as “pagans” by one of the princes, but the Persians also treat the holy city with obvious reverence and King Sharaman has no qualms about donning what he believes to be the prayer robe of its patriarch, if more as a trophy than as a token of faith. The pagan line, the location and the period, and brief reference to “the Creator” would seem to point towards the Persians being Muslim, but no symbols or practices of Islam are visible. Even the most roundabout suggestion that a Hollywood action hero might be a Muslim must have made Disney executives leery.

But maybe they should have allowed themselves to be less leery. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time smacks of imposed compromises but also of ill-conceived creative notions. Its direct source material, though “only” a video game, jumps off from its Arabian Nights genre inspiration into richer veins of atmosphere and excitement. The film echoes the time-freezing effects of the game in fleeting showcase moments, but simply does not tell a story that is as good or as involving. With its enslavement to blockbuster convention and to a plot of royal succession intrigue, The Sands of Time proscribes its potential affect by being too much of a movie when it might have captured a wider imagination if it had trusted its gaming heritage a bit more implicitly.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. November 24, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Good review. Was nowhere close at all to being perfect, however, it’s better than a lot of video-game movie adaptations, so I’ll give it that much. But did we really need Jake Gyllenhaal playing somebody who was supposed to be Persian? I don’t know. I guess that’s just Hollywood speaking for us.

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