I have two separate reviews of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The first is that, as a vehicle for Jake Gyllenhaal it succeeds 100%. I was worried about Gyllenhaal as an action star, not because he can’t act–because he can–but because, despite his good looks, I’ve never seen him as a viable action hero. I should have remembered Jarhead. Gyllenhaal has an amazing physicality and he isn’t modest about stomping around half-nekkid for our entertainment. I was expecting his accent to drive me crazy, but despite what the few spots of dialogue in the trailer show, he actually does a credible job with a lower-class English accent. And the hair wasn’t as bad as I expected either, since most of the time it was either sweat-soaked or flying around his head during an action sequence. It looked a lot less flat-ironed in the movie than it did in still shots from the set. Combine his willingness to go beefcake with his very real acting talent, and Gyllenhaal definitely has what it takes. He can sell cheese and his abilities both latent and physical get him through some pretty bad dialogue. Lesser actors have been hugely successful action stars–I’d like to see the genuinely talented Gyllenhaal succeed in this role rather than, say, the barely-evolved Channing Tatum.
As a movie, Prince of Persia is less successful, though it is better than the terrible trailer suggested. But overall, it isn’t a great movie. Is it fun? Sure. Is it entertaining summer popcorn fare? Yeah. Could I live without a sequel? Probably. As good as Gyllenhaal was, at the end of the movie it wasn’t another Prince of Persia that I wanted, but to see Gyllenhaal in an action vehicle more worthy of his talent. Without Gyllenhaal Prince of Persia would have been unmitigated trash. But Jake G holds it together with a smile and a never-ending well of charm, plus his spectacular, huge biceps. He’s seconded by Gemma Arterton (Tamara Drewe, Clash of the Titans) with whom he has decent if not world-burning chemistry. Their repartee is sharp and lively, but when he finally kisses the girl (after one too many false starts), it’s weird and awkward and kind of looked like Arterton was trying to eat Gyllenhaal’s mouth off his face. That bizarre kiss aside, they’re a likeable screen pair. Alfred Molina and Ben Kingsley also star, as a shady tax-dodger and a creepy vizier, respectively. Molina can always be counted on to elevate mediocre material and here he ably succeeds, providing virtually the only comic relief in the movie with his campy, taxation hating, desert pirate. Kingsley, however, has a rare miss. He overshoots camp and lands in straight-up cheese. It pains me to cringe at Ben Kinglsey but I did it, more than once. His sneering vizier Nizam is a combination of Jafar and Scar. I kept waiting for him to yell, “Simbaaaaaa!”
And that’s the chief problem with Prince of Persia. You could pretty much call it Aladdin Goes to War and get the point. Videogame movies are usually pretty thin on plot, but Prince of Persia is one game noted for its story. The games have undergone much iteration, and the movie borrows some themes while adding another plot to the canon. I don’t have a problem with this. Some gamers are complaining, as they are complaining about the famously unnamed prince getting a moniker for the movie (Dastan), but it’s inevitable that the filmmakers were going to write something new for the big screen. And they had series creator Jordan Mechner on board; he wrote the story on which the script is based. The whole plot revolves around Dastan, an orphan from the slums who is adopted by the Persian King Sharaman. Now the youngest of three sons, Dastan is a military savant who would rather hang with his gang of street ruffians than sit around with his poncy brothers and say things like, “I will ponder the advice of my noble uncle.” After successfully sacking the city of Alamut, a holy city that may or may not be making really sharp swords on the sly, Dastan is framed for the death of his father. Everything else that happens is basically the plot of The Lion King. Dastan hooks up with a band of unlikely friends in the wilderness, then returns to Alamut to avenge his father’s death and reveal the treachery of his uncle. Toss in a dash of Pirates of the Caribbean–Molina’s shady sheikh is clearly a rip off of Jack Sparrow minus Johnny Depp’s, well, everything–and you have Prince of Persia.
This isn’t to say Prince of Persia isn’t entertaining, because it is, despite its clichéd plot. It’s mostly due to Gyllenhaal, who is way overqualified for this job. He really sells Dastan, and his scenes with Arterton and/or Molina show what good actors can do with poor material. And then there’s the action. Next to Gyllenhaal, this is best thing about the movie. Thanks to everyone’s new favorite thing, parkour, Prince of Persia boasts some really cool action sequences. Instead of having one or two major fight scenes, Prince of Persia goes with a consistent rhythm of fight-and-run. When the MTV Movie Awards go to nominate Prince of Persia next summer, which they will, it should pick up a nomination for Best Fight: Jake Gyllenhaal versus Everyone. This is one area where Prince of Persia improves on the formula established by Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates was too long, suffering from a couple places where the movie slowed too much and dragged through unnecessary expository scenes. Prince of Persia goes the other way, opting to keep things moving quickly and dropping frequently painful dialogue to get through plot (“Listen to me carefully–this is a mystical device.”). If anyone ever managed to match up this fight-and-run rhythm with good dialogue you’d have an easy hit on your hands. Director Mike Newell also tips his hat to the game by utilizing some of the prince’s famous acrobatics in some pretty gorgeous sequences. And if you think Gyllenhaal didn’t do some of his own stunts, note how much the camera stays on his face while he’s fighting. Boy spent a year of his life learning this shizz and it paid off.
If you’re like me and are forgiving of cheese and clichés in favor of teeth-breaking action and stuff blowing up, especially in a summer blockbuster (although Prince of Persia is not a blockbuster, instead having mildly underwhelming holiday weekend box office), then you will probably like Prince of Persia. And really, I’m not just saying this because he’s ridiculously hot, but Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is worth watching. I hope he finds a franchise worthy of his ability, and doesn’t end up wandering in and out of lousy keystone properties like Nicolas Cage has done. I’m not convinced Cage would ever have been interesting over a long period of time as one character (because he certainly isn’t interesting in National Treasure), but Gyllenhaal could definitely keep me coming back for more. I’m just not sure I want more of him as Prince Dastan.