Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Prince of Persia" is Pretty Pedestrian

There is nothing egregiously awful about "The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." By that I mean that it commits no particularly worse cinematic crimes than anything else in the genre of Middle-Eastern fantasy films produced by Westerners. There are the usual bits of orientalism and racebending – it's impossible to take the leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton seriously as Persian natives – but otherwise it's largely inoffensive. Unfortunately, it's also pretty bland and unremarkable.

Gyllenhaal stars as Prince Dastan, the adopted son of Persia's King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), and younger brother to Princes Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell). Also part of the family is Nizam, Sharaman's brother and trusted advisor, who is played by Ben Kingsley, and thus, of course, the villain of the picture. Tricked into thinking the holy city of Alamut has been producing weapons for their enemies, Dastan and his brothers conquer the city and take its lovely ruler, Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) prisoner. Dastan also acquires a mysterious dagger with a glass hilt, which has mysterious powers.

You can probably guess the rest of the story from there. Dastan and the princess end up on the run together, traveling across picturesque desert landscapes to evade Nizam's forces and protect the magical McGuffin. I've never played any of the "Prince of Persia" video games that were the basis of the series, so I have no idea how faithful the filmmakers were to the source material, but the movie never feels like a video game. Rather, it comes across as a minor echo of "The Thief of Baghdad," "Aladdin," and all the other iterations of "One Thousand and One Arabian Nights" we've seen over the years, though you can see where pains were taken to avoid familiar tropes like genies and magic carpets..

The other obvious template for "Prince of Persia" is the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, and it's no secret that Disney was hoping "Persia" would be able to pick up the slack once "Pirates" ended. The films share the same penchant for sword fights and CGI spectacle, though everything feels scaled-down in "Prince of Persia," probably due to a smaller budget and the involvement of less action-savvy writers and directors. Also, it becomes very clear how lucky the "Pirates" crew were in landing Johnny Depp, because "Persia" really suffers from the lack of a character like Captain Jack Sparrow to stir up the familiar formula. Given the genre, it's especially strange that "Persia" doesn't have a rogue or thief in its roster.

Instead, the weight of the narrative rests solely on Dastan, the noble good-guy we're meant to root for. Jake Gyllenhaal deserves credit for committing to the role, selling his action scenes, and emoting just enough in all the right places to keep us from rolling our eyes at his dialogue. I expect that it's harder than it looks. Gemma Arterton fares less successfully with Princess Tamina, who is one of the most caustic, shrewish heroines I've had the misfortune of encountering on the silver screen. For the first half of the film she insults and mocks everyone within hearing distance, and only seems to soften up later in order to keep the audience from cheering for her demise.

Of the rest of the ensemble, it's a mixed bag. Ben Kingsley phones in a few scenes of villainy, and the rest of the actors portraying the royals are unremarkable. Alfred Molina pops up as a secondary baddie around the midpoint of the movie to make complicate the journey of the protagonists. With his anti-government rants and affection for ostriches, he's the closest thing that "Prince of Persia" has to comic relief, and is far more tolerable than similar characters found in other movies. I suspect he would have been more effective if he'd had someone else to play off of, which underscores the curious lack of minor characters in this film.

I wonder if the smaller cast was a result of more cost-cutting measures. It's noticeable that "Prince of Persia" has fewer major effects sequences than "Pirates," which are altogether about on par with the visuals of "The Mummy" movies. It also takes fewer risks with its material, resulting in a far simpler, more by-the-numbers plot. In some areas this was to the film's benefit, and I appreciated the lack of narrative clutter. On the other hand, I didn't feel like I'd seen anything really novel, or big and impressive enough to require seeing in theaters. And that's probably why I ended up renting "Prince of Persia" and watching it on my puny television set at home.

Not a great way to start a franchise.

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