Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t the problem here—he’s plenty likable in this ancient action romp. But overcome by its hyperactive video-game roots, Prince of Persia ends up as little more than inoffensive box-office product; a clamoring mess of sand and fury signifying another never-ending franchise.
I like/tolerate most of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies for the obvious reasons: Johnny Depp, pirates and pirate ships, and sea monsters. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s attempt to replicate the wild financial success of the Pirates franchise–only instead of pirates at sea we have Persians in the desert; instead of based on an amusement park ride I’ve never taken, it’s based on a video game I’ve never played; and instead of Johnny Depp’s slurring swagger we have Jake Gyllenhaal’s sly grin and oiled pecs.
The plot, as best I could tell, has something to do with a sixth-century royal Persian family, including Dastan (Gyllenhaal), who was kindly plucked off the streets by the king and made a prince. So you see, he’s noble and heroic, but also has the scrappy street-smarts of a thief!
Dastan and his princely brothers invade the city of Princess Tamina (don’t look at me, I don’t make up these names) and Dastan accidentally ends up with the princess’s magic dagger that can, like Cher in fishnet stockings atop a battleship, turn back tiiiiiiiime. (There’s also a none-too-subtle nudge about using the pretense of weapons of mass destruction to invade a desert nation in order to secretly get at its powerful natural/magical resources.)
But things go awry for Dastan, and he and Tamina (Gemma Arterton from Clash of the Titans) end up on the lam across the desert, in and out of various jams, running and jumping and making lots of noise as they try to do something with the Ancient Dagger of MacGuffin. Ben Kingsley’s here as well, doing his usual solemn pose amid the silliness, and Alfred Molina pops in to liven things up (though he seems intent on not being recognized). (Fans of the UK Coupling, yep that’s one-time goof Richard Coyle acting all serious as the older princely brother.)
Now before you start complaining it’s just a summer-fun film, not meant to be taken seriously or dissected, let me be clear: I love going to the movies to be entertained. And I had some fun during the first third of Prince of Persia—Gyllenhaal’s a charmer with those sad eyes and that wry, smart-dumb smile, and he carries a lot of the flick on his easy appeal. (Even his British accent is passable.)
Gyllenhaal’s bickering with Arterton has an enjoyable Han-and-Leia flow. (Arterton’s great with a look and a sneer, though to have made one bloated robe-and-sandals flick this year may be regarded as a misfortune; to have made two looks like carelessness.) And it’s easy at first to embrace the film’s panoramic spectacle and derring-do—in addition to the now-required parkour climbing, it’s full of game-inspired gears and weapons, puzzles and tasks. (If only some of PoP’s sense of adventure had been extracted and injected into Robin Hood a few weeks ago.)
But if Prince of Persia teaches us anything, it’s how fragile and lucky a thing the Pirates films were. Plotted with a free-falling Cuisinart, the POTC movies shouldn’t have hung together and worked as well as they did. We now know this because Prince of Persia clearly shows how off it can all go, even with all the right ingredients. Nothing much changes after that enjoyable first act, but Prince of Persia shows off all its tricks early, and then just keeps going on… and on… and on…. On past fun and well into “please, gods, let it end…” Likable as Gyllenhaal and Arterton may be, they’re not enough to keep the film afloat for its whole running time.
For a textbook example of how a big, profit-driven franchise out for mass demographic appeal can consume a once-smart and sensible director, look no further than Mike Newell and PoP. Newell used to make thoughtful, character-driven films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco, and even his Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire eked out fine moments. But here Newell seems to have been bound, gagged, and stuffed away in a gilded chest—Prince of Persia feels shanghaied and poked into submission by corporate committee.
This is the new post-Pirates/Transformers era of summer-movie storytelling: The Age of ODTAA (One Damn Thing After Another. Or just ADD for short.) Prince of Persia subscribes to the cluttered “more is more” theory of summer spectacle, zig-zagging like a pinball from one sequence to the next, its plot spinning wildly. Dash here! Jump this! Ride there! Hit that! Kiss her! Stab him! The result is a spastic epic, a Lawrence of the Ritalin that runs out of charm long before it gets out of the desert.