24 May 2010

Weapons of Mass Distraction

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.
Into the mixed bag of video game movies comes Prince of Persia- The Sands of Time. Dastan is a street urchin-made-prince by his adoptive father and King, and is naturally the most noble and fierce soldier in Persia, whose empire spans across the globe at this stage in history. While sacking a holy city purported to be arming Persia's enemies, Dastan happens across a mystical dagger, whose hilt contains the Sands of Time. The holder of the dagger can turn back time, and when Dastan's world is turned upside down by accusations of treason, he must team up with a princess, Tamina, in order to save the world.

Jerry Bruckheimer has obviously done his utmost here to find a film to replicate the barnstorming success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. This one may well be his most likely prospect, but it's clearly just a shame that it had to be set in the Middle East. In the midst of an international conflict, the Disney production is very confused indeed. Gone is the approach of making Aladdin look like Tom Cruise, because that would baffle audiences! Americans aren't from Iran! Everyone is now... British. Yes, and a buffed up Jake Gyllenhaal shall star and put on a decent British accent, and everyone else shall actually be British! Ben Kingsley! Alfred Molina! Jeff from Coupling! To Disney, this might as well register as Galactic Basic.

They've also opted for a heavy handed politicisation of the plot. The Persian army descends upon the holy city at the beginning of the film because they're making non-descript weapons for the enemy- weapons which they naturally can't find once they've subjugated the city. There's also a lot of rumination about whether or not this was a just invasion, and whether or not Dastan should have been "a great man, instead of a good one", and protested against the attack to stop it happening. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think we've ended up with a popcorn flick version of Green Zone!

This subtext is scarcely accessible for a family audience, so Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time actually does the one thing you'd think they'd be striving desperately to escape. Every now and then, they stop and stand around so the camera can show whatever battlefield or crowded area they're headed for, while the characters explain what needs to happen. This happens prior to about 80% of the action sequences, and resembles nothing so much as video-game storytelling. You can be forgiven if you reach for a phantom PS2 controller at any of these junctures.

All of this said, it's a lot more competent than it has any right to be. Director Mike Newell does a fine job off the back of having directed the most action-packed of the Harry Potter films to date, The Goblet of Fire, and here brings a similar sensibility to the table. It's always nicely choreographed and doesn't look like a video game fight even if the editing tees it up that way. Neither does it out-stay its welcome at a nice, stream-lined two hours that zips along and doesn't stretch credulity in the way of Bruckheimer's Pirates sequels.

The acting is surprisingly good too, with Gyllenhaal's Dastan ending up a much better action hero than you'd expect of the guy who was once Donnie Darko. Alfred Molina is reliably enjoyable too, but deserves to be singled out for nearly stealing the film in what should really be a thankless comic relief role. Ben Kingsley and Richard Coyle are less noteworthy, but for its female lead Gemma Arterton, I'm hoping it will mark a rethink of her choices.

I thought she was great in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, but seeing as how she's back on eye-candy duty in this one, I feel that what happens next is crucial to her career. Arterton's not put to the best use here with her expositionary role- she delivers most of that cut-scene dialogue I mentioned. She doesn't have the best chemistry with Gyllenhaal either, which makes their bickering as irksome as your average romcom dialogue. Basically, if she can continue with meatier roles like Alice Creed in future, I'll be happy. If she takes over from Megan Fox in Transformers 3, as has been rumoured, then she is dead to me. Come away from the Bay-stard!

The sun-bleached setting sits well in the summer blockbuster season, as does its general sense of humour and exciting set-pieces. In many ways, it's only disappointing that Disney were so precarious about the setting, falling back on their old tropes by evoking both Aladdin and The Lion King in the story, with an unhealthy infusion of war in Iraq allegory. And worst of all, they rely on an almost cynical cop-out ending that exploits the central McGuffin to remove any sense of jeopardy that had been building in the apparently apocalyptic threat that the villain poses. It's the big bum note in the narrative, but if you've had as much fun watching it as I did, you'll probably forgive it.

All in all, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is probably the best game-to-movie translation ever, but that's the best in an extremely weak field. It has a stronger lead performance than the material demands from an actor of Gyllenhaal's calibre, even if it's sometimes obscured beneath CGI and action sequences. The result is mixed and sometimes confused, but when it's fun, it's really fun, and a cut above what you would expect from a video game movie. If nothing else, be happy that it's a lot more enjoyable than Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and keep your fingers crossed that any potential Persia sequels (and I imagine there will be at least one) don't go to such hyperbolic ruin.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and want to share your thoughts on the film or my review, why not comment below? Alternatively, if you haven't figured out from a merest glimpse at the poster who turns out to be the baddy in this one, brush up on your actor typecasting and get back to me in the morning.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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