Monday, July 14, 2014

“This nobility business is not the cloth we're cut from.”

Hey! Remember Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time? No, not the critically acclaimed (and damn hard) PlayStation 2 platformer, that came out in 2003 (which itself was a sort of reboot of a series going back to 1989). I'm talking about the attempted blockbuster epic adventure that was released in 2010. You don't remember it? But it had Sir Ben Kingsley in it and stuff. (Be warned, I'm going to abuse a lot parentheses today.)

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time features a bunch of tanned Caucasian “Persians” (and Ben Kingsley) conquering the holy city of Alamut and in the process of sort of looting it, one of the Princes in command of the army happens upon a magic dagger, then gets framed for his father's death and goes on the run with the Princess of Alamut. The two have a bickering will-they-won't-they (of course they will) series of mishaps and adventures, while also trying to clear the Prince's name and figuring out how to refill a time travel dagger with magic sand. (that last part is actually from the game, and not nearly as stupid as it sounds.)

A quick note about the Hollywood penchant for casting. Yes, it would be nice if actors of appropriate ethnicities would be cast for those ethnicities, but the nebulous “studio execs” are probably more interested in using familiar names and faces to ensure people go “Oh, that new Jake Gyllenhaal movie?” instead of “Oh, that weird fantasy movie with a bunch of foreigners?” It's a tale as old as cinema, and one probably based more on economic estimates than racism.

Prince Dastan: Jake Gyllenhaal is our titular Prince, only not really. In the beginning of the movie, he's a homeless streetrat with great climbing skills and a heart of gold. So basically Disney's Aladdin. Except this time his moxie is noticed by the King of Persia, who takes him in and adopts him as a third son, making his origins as a low class schlub effectively meaningless outside of a few conversations. That part of his character could have been cut without any consequence to the movie. As for the character himself, he's a decent enough guy, who has the loyalty of his men, but he's also dense as rocks, which propels the plot but gets a bunch of people killed along the way. As for Gyllenhaal himself, he looks the part, can move around well, but doesn't infuse the character with nearly enough rogueish swagger to make him memorable.

Tamina: Gemma Arterton is the princess of Alamut and charged with keeping the sacred sands (and the dagger) safe, lest very bad things happen. Then Dastan sneaks into her city, opens the gates, which leads to them being conquered and her being taken prisoner. She's understandably pissed, and gets stuck with Dastan. At first her constant paranoia and betrayals of Dastan make sense, but after a certain point, it gets old and lingers longer than her mistrust of him should. The two don't really have great chemistry together.

King Sharaman: Ronald Pickup plays Dastan's adoptive dad. Apparently a benevolent and standup guy, he's not happy that his sons went out of their way to attack Alamut when that wasn't part of the original plan. Dastan is given a robe to give to his father as a gift, and then said robe turns out to be poisoned and painfully burns Sharaman to death, which is something more out of Greek myth than Persian, but hey, you don't see it often so I'll let it slide. His death sets in motion the real plot of the film.

Nizam: Ben Kingsley plays the King's brother and the princes' uncle. He's a royal vizier and Ben Kingsley, so, uh, spoiler alert: he's the bad guy. Shocking, I know. Anyway, he's always fun to watch.

Tus: Richard Coyle (Jeff from Coupling) plays the eldest Prince and heir to the throne. A responsible, conscientious leader, he's kind of a standup guy. But still, he's Jeff from Coupling, so I sat there the whole time thinking about the giggle loop and the Melty Man. Bit of a dissonance.

Garsiv: Toby Kebbell plays Tus' hotheaded younger brother and head of the military. Kind of an arrogant jerk for most of the movie, but not really that bad of a guy.

Sheik Amar: Alfred Molina in glorious ham mode as a shady merchant who runs “the Valley of the Slaves” a horrible place with a deadly reputation that he cooked up so he can avoid paying taxes and run his own fantasy Persian Las Vegas, with ostrich races and hookers. The character is a collage of anachronisms and weirdness, but it doesn't matter because Molina going to town on the scenery is the best thing in the whole movie.

Seso: Steve Toussaint plays Sheik Amar's soft-spoken henchman. A member of the Ngbaka tribe famed for knife-throwing skills, he first comes off as dumb muscle but turns into Amar's conscience and a capable ally for the Prince. Actually, the friendship between Amar and Seso has more chemistry and is more convincing than Dastan and Tamina's relationship. So much so that Sheik Amar's often flippant boast “Have I told you about the Ngbaka?” speech eventually becomes the most poignant and moving line in the entire movie at a certain point.

Directed by Mike Newell (who directed one of the better Harry Potter films along with Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral), the film features lots of brown and gold. And sand, obviously. Some of this is a product of post-processing and digital coloring and filters and CGI and stuff, which is understandable, but it doesn't make the color palette any less drab. This is disappointing, since the special “making-of” featurette shows more greenery and color when discussing location scouting. That made me sad.

As for the visual effects that go with this kind of movie, they're kind of forgettable. The first (and second) time Dastan uses the dagger, its an interesting effect of rewinding time that echoes how the game did it a little. There is nothing outright bad about the special effects (though the somewhat silly Hassansin squad gets pretty close with their gimmicks), but nothing I'd consider memorable. The same goes for the art direction: competent yet forgettable. There are no monster designs to speak of (disappointing considering the high fantasy tone) and the fight scenes are adequate without standing out.

Stuff happens, it looks all right, and then more all right looking stuff happens. This is a shame, considering that ancient Persia is not something usually touched upon in big Hollywood movies.

Based on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, scree story by Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, and screenplay by Boaz Yakin and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard. The most interesting plot bits are the ones taken from the video game. A magical dagger that can turn back time is a really neat concept, both in terms of game mechanics and narrative touches. Everything else feels like generic fantasy ADVENTURE elements. Everyman rises to a position of privileged authority, goes on ADVENTURE to clear his name and stop a coup and along the way gets to bicker with a hot princess that knows where the magic sand is that can refill the time dagger. Even so, something more could be made out of those plot elements and this movie doesn't. Instead I spent a lot of time thinking about how it was jarring that slavery was mentioned several times despite Persia being considerably less interested in keeping slaves than its neighbors like, oh, let's say Greece (Don't believe me? Read up on the helots. That's some depressing stuff.).

The rest of the movie was spent wondering why the movie went out of its way to establish Dastan as a street rat orphan with great parkour skills and a heart of gold, except instead of a monkey in a fez and a flying carpet he gets adopted by the king and elevated to the status of a prince. This serves no true narrative purpose beyond a few references here and there. It could have been cut from the movie without affecting anything except shaving off about ten minutes of runtime. Just have him be the youngest son who's a black sheep because he's a bit of wild rebel who doesn't take his position as seriously as his older brothers so he gets restless and does something stupid and then has to clean up his mess. That's motivation enough for most fairy tales, and all of those elements are in the movie. Hell, the motivation for the assassination of the king is actually quite elegant (and petty, but hey, its regicide) in its simplicity.

Instead we get some bullshit about him being some everyman commoner, except he's not. He's an orphan with exceptional climbing ability and a reckless courage. Yes, this kind of exceptionalism does show up in folklore a lot, but its perfectly fine for your protagonist to be an exceptional individual with a simple or undefined backstory. IndianaJones is a pulp archeologist who's great with a whip and a mean right hook. John McLane is an overworked, cynical cop estranged from his family but succeeds due to cunning and stubborness. Robin Hood is an altruistic nobleman and marksman who becomes outraged by injustice and decides to do something about it. These are great characters because of their exceptional deeds and outsized personalities. Dastan only gets a few chances to really be a character, like when he's trying to lie to Sheik Amar about his real identity, realizes that its not working, laughs sheepishly and then makes a run for it. If the movie was more like that scene it would have been much better.

Oh, and one more thing, in a movie where the major plot device can magically turn back time, it kind of telegraphs how the ending's going to go.

Music by Harry Gregson-Williams. He's done much better work. Like so much else in the movie, it is serviceable but ultimately forgettable.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a functional piece of movie that does what it intends to. It looks fine and holds together reasonably well, much like a solid chair. Also like a solid chair, you don't really think about it unless you are making a deliberate effort to analyze it for its strengths and weaknesses and so you can judge it by its merits, but only lunatics do that sort of thing.


What I mean to say is that Prince of Persia feels like it was made with a checklist in hand and then a bunch of competent people were told to go make what was on the checklist. That makes it merely average and forgettable, which is a miracle for video game based movies.

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