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MOVIE REVIEW: Prince of Persia – The Sands of Time (2010)

REVIEW SUMMARY: A forgettable but modestly enjoyable that strives to emulate a Saturday morning serial and on occasion succeeds.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the sixth century, Dastan, adopted son of the king of the Persian Empire, joins forces with Princess Tamina to stop a duplicitous nobleman from taking possession of an ancient dagger that gives its owner the ability to travel backwards in time and change the past.

MY REVIEW
PROS: Alfred Molina as Sheik Amar, who steals the entire movie; well-paced direction by Mike Newell, with the right amount of tongue in cheek and charm.
CONS: By-the-numbers plotting; action that (not surprisingly) too often feels like a videogame; Jake Gyllenhaal’s consistent smirking throughout the movie.

Though I have not seen many, and thus am hardly an expert, I would venture a guess that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the best film adaptation of a video game since the subgenre was inaugurated in 1993 by Super Mario Bros. Considering how wretched virtually all video game movies have been, from Street Fighter and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider to recent travesties like Hitman and Max Payne, one would make the reasonable assumption that this does not mean the most recent entry is good, and one would be right. In spite of this, it manages to be more enjoyable than it has any right to be, despite its lack of originality and its forgettable execution.


Granted, writers Jordan Mechner, Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard must put their characters (such as they are) through similar machinations as those in the game, which keeps their plot mired in situations all too familiar to most fans of adventure and fantastic literature, but Mike Newell’s direction often shows enough professionalism to engage the audience, taking his cues not from the game’s third person acrobatics but movie serials from the 1930s and 1940s. Often, but not consistently; action sequences frequently lapse into slow motion (all too common in action movies today) and its aesthetics never rise above the point of view of a video game, making the viewer feel as if the seat should come equipped with a PlayStation 2 controller. Its attempts to become a modern day serial thus fall short of the same noble goal reached by Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It starts promisingly enough, with a drop of contemporary subtext in the serial. After a prologue in which King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) adopts the street urchin Dastan (Will Foster), the main action begins several years later when the king’s two sons Kus and Tarsiv (Richard Coyle and Toby Kebbell) along with Dastan (now played by Jake Gyllenhaal) lead the Persian army in an invasion of the sacred city Alamut, the citizens of which they believe are smuggling swords to Persia’s enemies. Dastan finds a beautifully crafted dagger during the invasion which, when a ruby embedded in the hilt is pressed, allows the user to travel backwards in time for up to a minute…and, it turns out, the ultimate object of the invasion itself in a struggle for power over the Persian Kingdom. When the king is killed as a result of deceptive sorcery, Dastan’s brothers and their vizier Nizam (Ben Kingsley) believe he, Dastan, is responsible, forcing Dastan to flee the city with Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), who wants the dagger back. Eluding soldiers sent in search of them and predictably bickering and backstabbing as they hide, Dastan and Tamina fall into the hands of Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina, truly the highlight of the entire movie), a promoter who runs ostrich races and a haven for ne’er-do-wells deep in the desert in an attempt to avoid paying taxes on the entertainment he provides. Eventually Dastan and Tamina learn who is behind the power struggle (most genre fans will figure this out before the invasion of Alamut), and his ultimate plans for the dagger itself.

The story engages on occasion despite its predictability and would have been more engaging had the performances of the cast been more uniform. (I would also have been pleased if a movie set in sixth century Persia had actually starred a Persian or two.) Gemma Arterton is lovely (as always) and plays Princess Tamina with an energy that is just right a bit of summer fluff, and Alfred Molina steals every scene he is in, providing the picture with much of its humor; he keeps his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek and a twinkle winking in his eye. Alas, they are the only two who seem to be having any real fun. Jake Gyllenhaal acts as if the part of Dastan is beneath his considerable thespian ability (and, to be fair, I suppose it is), and smirks throughout the entire movie. Ben Kingsley plays Nizam with a bemused air that borders on, but never fully drops into, camp.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time disappoints not because it is bad or predictable, but because it never attains the level it could have reached. In the less than twenty years that studios have been making movies based on video games, that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is as good as it is speaks well of it; that it fails to be better than it could have been makes it a pity, especially given the talent on hand and the attempt to transcend the source material. It fills its two-hour running time well enough, but like a sand painting in a storm, scatters from memory shortly thereafter.

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