Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Saturday Matinee Redux: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer's big-budget extravaganza Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) is a throwback to Saturday matinee adventure movies. I didn't catch up to it on the big screen because the thought of sitting through a sprayed-on copper-skinned, muscled-up Jake Gyllenhaal (usually a scrawny actor in indie films) in an action film was not on the top of my list. It didn't help that the critics had been generally unmerciful in their attacks. What I had forgotten, though, is that there is a herd mentality amongst some film critics. Not wanting to appear unhip, or not with it, too many of them thrust their, um, thumbs into the sky to see which way the wind is blowing. The early critical opinion was not good, so those upraised thumbs quickly turned down and the film's fate was sealed.

The movie was a hit internationally, but in Canada and US it generally tanked. However, Friday night sometimes requires a cheese-ball film, and since this was about the only one left I hadn't seen, I finally relented. Imagine my surprise when I came away satisfied, within the terms of what it was trying to achieve, with Prince of Persia. If you approach the movie as a throwback to big adventure films, or Roman Empire epics, of the 1950s and early 1960s, then the picture is completely enjoyable. There is a clue here that this is exactly what they intended. Every “Persian” speaks with a perfect British accent (including the American Gyllenhaal). I half expected James Mason to step up as the villain as he so often did back in the day in these sort of films. And then, of course, there are those spray-on tans. Hollywood has quite a history (not generally good) of doing just that when they cast mostly Europeans in non-European roles.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Atherton
Prince of Persia is based on a video game (usually a bad sign) and it tells the story of the Persian army attacking the holy city of Alamat. Dastan (Gyllenhaal) is the adopted son of the king of Persia. Though he was supposed to take a subordinate role in the attack, he successfully leads the assault and almost single-handedly defeats the city's army. At the end of the battle, he acquires a beautiful dagger with a sand-filled crystal handle. In victory, he is brought before the city's princess Tamina (Gemma Atherton – the very British Gemma Atherton whose sprayed-on tan is even more obvious than Gyllenhaal's). His father arrives and offers to give the conquered Tamina to Dastan as his bride. But treachery is afoot. Dastan is persuaded by one of his brothers to give his father a beautiful cloak as a tribute. The cloak, of course, is poisoned. The king dies and Dastan is accused of his murder. Tamina helps him escape the city because she knows he has the dagger and she wants it. You see, the dagger is a magic dagger (aren't they always in these movies?) that can turn back time by one minute. The dagger is just the activator for the time-folding sand in the handle, and after two uses it needs to be refilled. There's also a large repository of the much-needed sand buried somewhere in the sacred city. The villain of the piece sends bad men after Dastan and Tamina to get the dagger. Said villain (who will remain nameless to protect the plot, but if you don't figure it out in about 15 seconds you are surely blind) gets his minions to dig into the city to find the sand. He knows that if he unites the dagger with the big pile of magic sand he can turn back time more than a minute, therefore, allowing him to do something dastardly in the past. Did I mention the plot's ridiculous? Of course it is; that's the point.

Why this works is that they got the important things right. The performances are fine, the story is entertaining; director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) has learned his lessons from the Potter film and shoots the action so you can always tell what's going on (something far too many modern filmmakers cannot do); the running time is (just) under 2 hours; and though there are lots of derivative things going on (visual references to Lord of the Rings and other pictures abound), they are presented as gentle homages and not straight-up rip-offs. It is no work of art and, like the pictures that clearly inspired it, it probably will not stand the test of time. But on a Friday night, after a very long week, it did just fine.

 David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of DeathYou can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information.

1 comment:

  1. David, you are correct. It was an impressive film, which I too viewed on a Friday night a few weeks ago when it turned up on The Movie Network. The guy who played the villain was FABULOUS, and it was well within many of his other roles in the past. God, he was great...
    So was Alfred Molina, vastly underrated.

    I heard that Orlando Bloom turned down the lead. That's another reference for our joint TV show, if it ever gets off the ground.

    If you still have a copy, run it through to the 9:31 mark and check out the lower left hand side of the screen..You will find that there is a Photoshop of James Mason waving his hand in anger. Just thought you would like to know.