Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Review
Okay, folks, this is me playing catch-up with a few titles that have slipped through the net for one reason or another. Due to time constraints and other pressing duties, this and several other reviews will take the form of short (well short for me, anyway) sharp, shocks. A quick in and out, commando-style.
The cherished videogame of Prince Of Persia makes the leap to the big-screen and live-action in this debut adventure, dubbed The Sands Of Time and starring indie-champion Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role of the street-thief-cum-adopted-royal, Dastan, and directed by Brit director Mike Newell – an unlikely choice whose only action fantasy credits before this are Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire and episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Under the strict control of Jerry Bruckheimer, the mega-project was bandied-about as being something of a landlubber's counterpart to The Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, although in truth it is closer in flavour and attitude to Stephen Sommers' Mummy trilogy. Further adventures for the heroic Prince Dastan were naturally being mooted even before his first one had even gotten underway, but the secrets of longevity are elusive and the sands of time may, indeed, have already seeped away from yet another cinematic gaming crossover.
Super-fit orphaned urchin, Dastan, is taken in by the King, who recognises some cheeky courage in a defiant young rogue who can so deftly runs circles around his more experienced soldiers. Years pass and Dastan becomes the hot-headed, bar-brawling thorn in the side of his two adoptive brothers, dark and serious Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and probable heir to the throne Tus (Richard Coyle), effortlessly assuming the role of the impetuous one out of the three popular princes. As always, there is war in the offing, and the brothers become embroiled in a campaign to take the city of Alamut in a fabulously realised battle that showcases all the headstrong warrior's cavalier heroism. Dastan's cunning saves the day but his valour is not enough to save himself from the false accusation of murdering their father as a terrible betrayal is wrought and strings appear to be pulled from high places. Thus, beset by brotherly rage, Dastan is forced to go on the run, eluding his pursuers with his renowned agility and compelled to take along the enigmatic Tamina (Gemma Arterton in the second of her recent fantasy outings), high priestess of the sacked city of Alamut and sworn protector of the mystical Dagger Of Time, in his determination to get to the bottom of such apparent deception and false allegation. With his own people, including the sneering, and now vengeful Garsiv, having turned against him and out for his blood, Dastan will have to use all of his instincts to stay ahead of the game and prove his innocence. But there's a much bigger picture, of course. I mean it wouldn't be a Bruckheimer film if there wasn't a great deal more at stake, would it?
So what the chase really revolves around is that highly prized dagger that Dastan's got wedged in his belt. Its gem-pommelled hilt, you see, contains the sands of time. When activated, the wielder of the dagger can turn back the clock for a few precious seconds, thereby averting the fatal fall of a blade, the bite of a snake, the daft deed just done, the odd inept chat-up line, or … or, wait for it, eradicate someone from history and quite possibly cause untold damage to civilisation. Now that's more like it, eh? Why, in the wrong hands this could be a truly apocalyptic power! So, Dastan and Tamina have to safeguard the dagger, uncover the truth about the dastardly traitor behind this nefarious plot, and return the dagger to its rightful place in the sacred city.
Jake Gyllenhaal finds the physicality of Dastan all right, his body bronzed and pumped-up and his stamina maxed-out. Running down crowded streets or across rooftops, leaping from building to building, shinning-up sheer walls like a spider on steroids and swinging like an Arabian Tarzan across chasms, through windows and off vertigo-inducing precipices, he is the perfect embodiment of the game-influenced character. His heroism and assumed nobility is beyond question. The problem comes when he opens his stubble-weighted mouth and attempts to emote in that hideously clichéd English accent of cinematic yore. There is absolutely no conviction to that voice at all. Although the sound of an actor’s voice is not normally something that can be attributed to a character’s make-or-break appeal – I mean just listen to Stallone’s trademarked mumbling – it can hugely separate the weak from the strong when it sounds as wimpish and pathetic as this. Gyllenhaal is extremely lucky, then, that he is such a likeable presence because, without that all-too-vital charisma, his derring-do and athletic machismo would account for nothing when saddled with that soft and meatless voice.
Thus, you would think that the pairing of this beefed-up pretty-boy with Gemma Arterton’s pouty Persian princess would make for a bland couplet indeed. Certainly with the former St. Trinian’s girl having provided the somnambulistic role of exposition-queen in the horridly lacklustre Clash Of The Titans opposite personality vacuum of Sam Worthington would have indicated a performance lacking in humour, humanity or sparkle. But Arterton places her pampered tootsies in the baking sands with a lot more vigour than you might have expected. And, better yet, her noble prickliness works well in cahoots with Gyllenhaal’s hangdog human Duracell. They aren’t Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, but such chemistry that exists between them works surprisingly well, and certainly much better than the starched, time-wasting romantic filler of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom in Pirates. This is the glue that makes the film so entertaining. All the large-scale scraps and inventive escape and evasion in the world couldn’t save a film if the two leads were stagnant, vacant planks of wood, so at least we have a duo who provide a touch – only a touch, mind – of the requisite romance. Scratchy and reluctant at first, their growing bond becomes frothy and playful. And even if that all-too-obvious twist finale threatens to throw an ancient spanner in the works, there is an undercurrent of emotion that makes the swooning tit-for-tat between the two a solid and delightful ingredient.
Ben Kingsley can usually split his performances down the middle. He is either extremely good – Ghandi, Sexy Beast, Shutter Island – or extremely bad and contrived – anything by Uwe Boll, The Last Legion or Species. But here, as Dastan's mentor and too-close consort to the King, Nizam, he sort of breaks his own mould. He is, indeed, playing a very stereotypical character, the type that would normally relegate his performance to the department of the exceedingly naff, and yet he is able to carve something of surprising worth out of the deal. His Nizam actually reminds me a lot of the scheming Scar from The Lion King. Outwardly regal and yet obviously caddish, but imbued with more than enough smarts to make the duplicitous machinations of such a role interesting and intriguing enough to allow him to dispense with the more usual and commonplace scenery-chewing. Such work may all come to nothing in the end – when the story becomes rather too obvious and tried-and-trusted during its eventual big villainous reveal – but at least he doesn’t infuriate on the way to this accepted eventuality as he has done so often in the past.
It is also great to see Toby Kebbell getting the chance to act tough. I still can't get the image of him as Paddy Considine's tragic younger brother getting horribly humiliated and abused by the gang in Shane Meadows' stunning Dead Man's Shoes out of my head, so seeing him buffed-up and swarthy and leaping into the fray with zeal is a real tonic. Richard Coyle also gets a suitably heroic makeover, his proud warrior-prince, Tus, a far cry from his usually spindly and oddball characters, such as the demon-hunting ex-priest John Strange in the short-lived supernatural TV show, Strange. Little touches from both of them help cement the angst and dynamics of the reluctant siblings, grounding the otherwise formulaic approach that Newell cannot really avoid with a solid backbone of testosterone and rivalry. But where there is machismo in a family adventure, there is also slapstick. Once one of the sappy Russian sailors who fell for a couple of Scouse girls in Letter To Brezhnev, Alfred Molina went on to big Hollywood roles in the likes of Maverick and, of course, Spider-Man 2 as Doctor Octopus. Here, he drops into the rather inevitable role of comedy support. As the quirky turban-wearing gangster Sheik Amar, he feigns slimy wheeler-dealing, like an Arabian Del-boy, for sloppy and irascible plot-hopping fun-skulduggery. Some low-rent tomfoolery involving ostriches notch up the film's contrivance score with a few lazy yuks, and even if we all know that Molina is actually a far better actor than this, his appearance here is still a welcome one, nevertheless. Incidentally, Kebbell and Molina would team-up in another of Disney's action fantasy-capers, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, shortly after this.
Visually, the film is a scenic joy of rolling deserts, evocative sun-burnished citadels and expansive set-pieces, all lovingly captured by the great John Seale, as the film's DOP. The westernised ignorance of long-forgotten cultures is neatly and wisely overlooked in favour of rip-roaring entertainment, and even if the film curls around the pursuit for a weapon of veritable mass destruction – an allegory that the producers just shrug off as being nothing more than a coincidence – such potentially shady and troublesome plotting can be swiftly elbowed aside with the copious good-will embodied by our Persian heroes. The opening battle is wonderful, both in scale and in spectacle. The succeeding skirmishes, however, tend to give in to the law of diminishing returns, although the inclusion of a bunch of ancient bad-ass assassins, who can roam the deserts after their targets in the spooky guise of dust-devils (they are heartily reminiscent of the Immortals from 300 in their more corporeal form) peps up the menace a fair bit. And the fighting actually does have some oomph to it, as well. Nothing is going to shock you, but you might feel a few of the more solid clouts.
I will say that even if I find the first two thirds of the film reasonably exciting and visually enthralling, the whole thing comes swiftly apart at the seams in its final stretch, after paths cross and then re-cross in a narrative that bumbles boisterously along for the most part. A massive CG overload swirling around the lead characters does not necessarily make for a strong finale – in fact, it smacks of complete narrative lethargy. And even if a couple of knowing looks and a sly wink attempt to wrestle some sequel-baiting goodwill back into the affair, you can't help but feel more than a touch underwhelmed and, if I'm honest, quite bitter about a denouement that clumsily unravels most of what you have just seen. At the flicks, I was too forgiving about this crass conclusion, even if I had seen it coming a mile away. And you can't say that screenwriters Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard haven't shoved enough hints down our throats throughout the adventure. At home, though, this let-down just feels all the more annoying somehow … all those spectacular cities and stamina-sapping chases just squandered.
Scoring duties for this epic of bygone adventure fell to the accomplished and jobbing composer, Harry Gregson-Williams. The Hans Zimmer-protégée had already straddled the action and fantasy credentials with Shrek, the not-too-dissimilar Kingdom Of Heaven and his underrated score for Sinbad And The Legend Of The Seven Seas, and the music he came up with for Dastan’s time-flipping travails was nothing extraordinary, though still very enjoyable. Rousing and lushly dynamic, and boasting a fine main theme, Gregson-Williams make take the easy route – much of the music, here, is generic and ten-a-penny – but his compositions suit the easygoing but often violent mood of the film to a tee.
For me, Prince Of Persia is enjoyable fluff. It coasts along on the back of some great set-pieces, boasts a sumptuous look and contains a collection of performances that do no more than is asked of them, yet refuse to let the side down either. There is a nice level of playful action that combines some properly vivid fighting with plenty of whirligig acrobatics, and the film only marginally overstays its welcome. The sun-drenched appeal of such glowing vistas and majestic ancient cities is agreeably evocative. The Macguffin of the Dagger is sadly over-employed – though this, in itself, is a break with tradition – but in the crux of its power lies one of the greatest climactic let-downs I’ve seen for a long time. Yet the fact that you can see this coming and still enjoy such a gloriously old-fashioned sword-and-sandal escapade is a feather in Newell’s cap. I don’t agree with his belief that an extra year’s worth of post-production tinkering was worth it, however. But I will disagree with the many critics who complained that he couldn’t handle the action sequences with any serious aplomb. There may not be anything all that original here, but Prince Of Persia remains jovial and exciting enough, and leaves you with the contentment of having sat through a popcorn summer blockbuster that did pretty much everything it was supposed to do. The problem is that it is not a film that you will feel the need to return to all that often, so unlike its colossally influential forebear, Pirates Of The Caribbean.
Saturday afternoon derring-do, then … and a helluva lot more satisfying than the likes of Clash Of The Titans or Percy Jackson. Prince Of Persia just lacks the true hook of the burgeoning franchise that it so wants to be.