How did we end up with two films made, at least partially, in Morocco in one week?
How is it that two films both shot in the beautiful, majestic Morocco can both suck so incredibly badly?
While Disney's latest, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced and Mike Newell directed Prince of Persia: Sands of Time doesn't quite plummet to the depths of vapid mediocrity that Sex and the City 2 does, the film remains a hilariously awful over-produced and frivolously sculpted special effects spectacle with little purpose other than to freakishly bring to life the 2003 version of the Prince of Persia video game.
Being a rather disjointed blend of Bruckheimer and Newell, Prince of Persia somehow manages to squeeze in touches of world history, the obligatory classic British accents despite the film's being set in Persia (Iran), a buffed up and usually shirtless Jake Gyllenhaal and an abundance of occasionally awesome but more typically cheesy special effects that fall far short of indicating the film's $150 million production budget.
Dastan (Gyllenhaal), a name linked to the concept of destiny, is the films hero. Adopted by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) following a rather impressive display courage in defense of a battered youth, Dastan is welcomed as a brother alongside the King's own children, Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell), with whom he is raised with Uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) always nearby.
As the young siblings grow into young men they, in turn, become young and brave warriors who are taught to balance their battles with a sense of compassion and a reverence for Alamut, a land deemed to be sacred. One day, Uncle Nizam reports of learning that the kingdom of Alamut has betrayed Persia and is dealing weapons with Persia's enemies. To find these weapons (HINT: Weapons of Mass Destruction, ya' know), Nizam urges attack and the wheels are set in motion.
Inside the city, Dastan discovers a secret dagger, the "Dagger of Time," a dagger so powerful that it's possessor can alter all of history. Alamut's princess, Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), is the guardian of the dagger and the remainder of Prince of Persia becomes a journey towards restoration of the dagger's final place, a journey made more complicated when Dastan is implicated in an unexpected tragedy.
It is only the presence of Alfred Molina, as an Ostrich Race organizer who spouts anti-government propaganda who salvages what little fun can be had in Prince of Persia, a film that can't seem to decide if it wants to be a comic action flick, a special effects-laden epic or a true family film. In the end, Prince of Persia becomes a film that feels awfully violent for its PG-13 rating (though none of the violence is particularly graphic) and too darn serious to attract much attention from action that will likely skew towards a pre-teen to teen male audience.
Gyllenhaal has openly admitted having turned down films in the past due to his fear of accents, and while his demeanor screams out emo American he does manage to serve up a fairly decent Brit accent...at least it's more workable than the godawful one offered by Russell Crowe in Robin Hood. Gyllenhaal has a nice, comfortable chemistry with real Brit Arterton, whose turn in Clash of the Titans surely prepared her for similar work here.
The trio of script writers do manage to insert a few factual points, for example the city of Alamut was an actual city and the film references the Hashshashin, a cult of assassins whose history is potentially linked to hashish. There are vaguely Islamic references in the film, though they are are never direct and certainly never to the point of those made in Sex and the City 2. While the script is occasionally clever, it's dialogue is mind numblingly simple and frighteningly Americanized. At times, Prince of Persia plays like a high school Shakespearean exercise completed by American actors with an air of self importance and a streetwise swagger.
Director Mike Newell, whose directed the character driven Four Weddings and a Funeral and the special effects-laden fourth Harry Potter, somehow manages to create a film that doesn't look anywhere near its $150 million budget. The special effects are almost uniformly unimpressive, even the "Dagger of Time" only being impressive upon its debut and a rather freakish (and frightening for small children) snake special effect being only modestly successful.
Gyllenhaal is a passable action hero, though his performance occasionally borders of self-conscious. Gemma Arterton, on the other hand, manages to pull off what is essentially required of her...to be a beautiful princess. Ben Kingsley, who gets to travel all over the caricature map, nonetheless seems to be having a blast and gives a winning performance most of the time.
Action scenes are frequently played out more like parkour than anything resembling a time and geographically appropriate action sequence, though several of the sword fights bring to mind the word "swashbuckling." For the second time this weekend, camera work nearly undoes a film with John Seale's photography giving the film an almost distracting shade of orange during quite a few scenes. If you've seen the movie poster, it's rather odd that much of the film actually resembles the movie poster. The original music by Harry Gregson Williams is a rather humdrum middle-eastern beat that becomes a bit monotonous by film's end.
It's refreshing to see Gyllenhaal tackle a project a bit less intense, but one can't help but feel that Prince of Persia never lives up to the quality of its cast with an uneven tone, weak camera work, stilted dialogue and special effects that fail to impress. Fans of the video game are more likely to be more satisfied by reaching into their video archive and simply playing the game again, while Disney fans will likely consider this one of their weakest cinematic entries in quite awhile.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic