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Disney’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”, based on the popular and long-running action-adventure videogame created by Jordan Mechner, is a mega production with mega sets, Hollywood sheen out the wazoo, great actors slumming it for a paycheck, and a script that services the action set pieces and not the other way around. In short, it’s everything it’s supposed to be: a ready-made Disney franchise similar to the studio’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”. As such, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that “Persia” easily qualifies as solid popcorn entertainment for the masses. And that, for better or worse, is probably its only goal this summer.
Jake Gyllenhaal steps out of his comfort zone in his first action-adventure role, playing Dastan, a street urchin who gets promoted to son of the Persian King because, well, the King likes his spunk. Dastan grows up with two older brothers, the ambitious Tus (Richard Coyle) and the bellicose Garsiv (Toby Kebbell). Now an adult, Dastan and the brothers lead an invasion of a holy city believed to be supplying the Persian Empire’s enemies with weapons of mass destruction. (Get it?) It is a lie, of course, all cooked up by enemies of the throne for nefarious purposes. After he comes into possession of a mystical dagger with the power to turn back time, Dastan finds himself framed for the murder of the King, forcing him to go on the run with the holy city’s Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton).
With only the spunky Tamina to aid him, Dastan must convince his brothers he isn’t their father’s killer, save his kingdom, stop the bad guys from unleashing the sands of time (which would also destroy the whole world, natch), and get the girl. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it. He finds allies in Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina), a desert entrepreneur who raises ostrich for a living and rails against Persian taxes. There’s also the deadly knife-thrower Seso (Steve Toussaint), whose skills come in handy when the bad guys unleash the deadly Hassansin assassins, essentially Persian ninjas, after our heroes. Unsurprisingly, as Dastan and Tamina learn to trust one another, they also reveal the truth about themselves, and – duh – fall in love. It’s, like, destiny and stuff.
You won’t be surprised to learn that “Prince of Persia” is, well, not entirely historically accurate. This is a Disney movie, after all, and when has Disney ever really cared about “accuracy”? So when Dastan runs around the screen like a French parkour ace, one should go, “Ah, that’s neat”, and move on. Tamina, of course, is also imbued with massive grrl power, as every female character in a period action movie nowadays must be. (It’s a movie law or something, doncha know.) It helps that Gyllenhaal, who has never done anything this physical in his career (with only “Jarhead” coming remotely close) is more than up to the task. As Entertainment Tonight can tell you, the “Brokeback Mountain” star has packed on plenty of muscle and spent more than his share learning the craft of parkouring. I couldn’t tell you how much of the stunt work Gyllenhaal did himself in the movie, but even if he did just a small share of it, it’s still pretty damn impressive.
“Prince of Persia” resembles one big Disney ride, complete with high-flying hero, sandstorms aplenty, and collapsing ancient floors. At times the film looks more like a stuntman’s reel, with Gyllenhaal rarely standing still as his Dastan is constantly being chased or attacked by throngs of hapless men. Gemma Arterton does her best to keep up with the boys, but despite all the snappy banter the script gives her, she’s essentially a damsel in distress. I’ve always found Arterton to be more cute than beautiful, and I hate to say it, but this isn’t exactly the kind of role that requires more than a pretty face. Alfred Molina, as the film’s comedic relief, is having a blast, and Ben Kingsley, as the King’s brother and Dastan’s uncle, looks out of his element. Throughout the film, I kept wondering if Kingsley is lamenting his big-budget Hollywood blockbuster paycheck, and if it was worth selling out his integrity. Then again, I’m sure he forgot all about it when he actually saw the paycheck. Cha-ching!
I’m not going to bullshit you: “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” is a Disney manufactured product through and through. The script tries to be relevant and earn some brownie points (Weapons of mass destruction? Lied to go to war? Get it?), but it just comes across as lazy and predictable writing in the year 2010. Director Mike Newell has done plenty of big-budget Hollywood movies before, so he’s an old hat with huge sets and complex stunt work by now. Alas, he doesn’t really bring anything special to the table, and much of “Persia” is disappointingly by-the-numbers. In fact, some of the film’s action set pieces don’t quite flow as smoothly as they should, and it’s sometimes hard to keep up with what’s going on onscreen, not helped by the fact that you have a hero prone to running and fighting at the same time.
Go to “Prince of Persia” for the huge action set pieces and elaborate stunt work, and stay for Jake Gyllenhaal’s commitment to his craft. At just under two hours, the film is an easy sit-through, and you’ll rarely be bored. Gyllenhaal is no Johnny Depp, and Dastan is no Jack Sparrow, but the film does lend itself to an ongoing action-adventure franchise for the undemanding viewer. I am mixed on the film – I never expected anything extraordinary, and the film didn’t exceed that expectation. Is that good or bad? Perhaps a little of both.
Mike Newell (director) / Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard, Jordan Mechner (screenplay)
CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal … Dastan
Gemma Arterton … Tamina
Ben Kingsley … Nizam
Alfred Molina … Sheik Amar
Steve Toussaint … Seso
Toby Kebbell … Garsiv
Richard Coyle … Tus
Ronald Pickup … King Sharaman
Reece Ritchie … Bis
Gísli Örn Garðarsson … Hassansin Leader