Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

What It Is

The Prince of Persia lives to leap. From rooftops, across alleyways, down sand dunes, into crevasses — he throws himself again and again into big slow motiony air, his arms outstretched and legs churning, his face blurred and his destination always achieved. Jake Gyllenhaal is the video game hero made flesh! Or at least, digitized.

As Dastan, Gyllenhaal is mostly noble and dashing and hard-bodied. He is also, sometimes, drunk and sullen and slow on the uptake. He has reason to be erratic, because, as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time briefly shows, he’s had a traumatic childhood. Homeless and orphaned as a boy (and played by William Foster), Dastan finds favor with King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) one sunny afternoon in the marketplace (after performing some child-sized leaps), at which point he’s swept into the castle and informally adopted as a royal son. The king holds him out as a moral model for his biological sons, Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle). All three grow up eager to please their patrician father and tended by their generally grumpy uncle, Nizam (Ben Kingsley).

The movie’s primary plot commences when the brothers band together to conquer the kingdom of Alamut. Here they meet the beautiful and rather willful Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton). She’s also a priestess, secretly assigned to guard a dagger that allows the bearer to turn back time (via a handle that holds the titular sands), a dagger Dastan picks up without knowing its powers. When the king is murdered and Dastan accused, he and Tamina take off together. Though they’re now both outlaws, they don’t get along. But, like any couple in an action adventure these days, they argue while working together: in this case, their goals are to clear Dastan’s name and keep the dagger away from bad guys. Along the way, they also come to appreciate each other’s spunk and befriend the wheeling-and-dealing Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina) and his sidekick, the very accurate Knife-Thrower Seso (Steve Toussaint).

Their journey entails lots of galloping across vast deserts, some sword-fighting, and even a little bit of special-effected multi-dimensional fluttering, as well as the leaping the Prince likes so much. When Dastan unleashes the dagger’s force — accidentally the first time, then with some calculation — the movie pitches into a Harry Potter-ish look (director Mike Newell helmed 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), with lights flashing and human bodies dissolving and reappearing. Confronting some magical opposition as well as some intra-family intrigues, Dastan and company actually end up going in a big circle, back to Alamut, where he must settle on a timeline, an identity, and, of course, a true love with Tamina.

Why It’s Fun

As expected in a movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer — the man behind the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise — the stunts are numerous and the romantic banter ongoing. Gylllenaal makes for a decent action figure, first on screen shirtless and street-fighting (see also: Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes), then called on by his brothers to behave in a more regal manner. Throughout the film, Dastan’s concern about his background (his original low class) creates a lively, if inconsistent, tension. He’s prone to adore and then distrust his brothers, with whom he is very competitive. This friction leads in turn to vigorous action set-pieces, including sort-of martial artsy fights and trick-riding — on horses, camels, and also, ostriches (ostrich-racing is Sheik Amar’s favorite money-making venture).

The settings are also spectacular, with grand castles and vast landscapes, as are the gorgeously colored, carefully detailed costumes.

Who’s Going To Love It

Fans of the video game seem likely ticket-buyers. And it’s true that the plot makes about as much sense as a video game, as it ricochets from fight to fight and chase to chase. Those viewers seeking emotional development or even much narrative coherence should probably look elsewhere.

What To Be Aware Of

While the movie offers plenty of thrills — battles, stunts, and mythic creatures — it is less than clear plot-wise (who’s fighting whom, and when, is fuzzy, especially in the first battle scene at Alamut). Sloppy direction has become common in recent action movies (see: Transformers), and really, the sides aren’t all that important. Still, a couple of deft cuts on action and brief explanatory dialogue might easily clean up the problem.

The violence is sometimes obvious — via arrows, knives, and fisticuffs — and frequently cartoonish and non-bloody. A couple of stabbings near the end, as well as a cut throat, are the very red exceptions.

The film features a brief glimpse of the mysterious whirling dervishes, as an introduction to one particularly strange and scary villain, here called the Hassansin Leader (Gísli Örn Garòarsson). This nameless opponent typifies the film’s inattention to detail: his face is scarred, he wears a black cloak, and so... he’s bad.

The verbal back-and-forths between Tamina and Dastan suggest that they’re well-matched in wit and suspicions, though it’s also clear from the first moment they lay eyes on one another (a scene that is replayed during different timelines), they are mutually attracted and intrigued. The fact that her eye is drawn repeatedly to the dagger on his belt is slightly suggestive, but inoffensive.

Some viewers are worried about the movie’s casting of Caucasian actors in Persian roles, as noted in the Los Angeles Times. While the case has been made that back in Prince of Persia’s medieval era (before Persia became Iran, before Islam was the region’s dominant religion), people were indeed light-skinned. This doesn’t address the primary concern raised by critics of the casting, however, that the movie is now a lost opportunity to showcase Asian stars who are not named Sir Ben Kingsley.

See-It-Again Points

4 out of 10

Film Information

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Director: Mike Newell
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Steve Toussaint, Gísli Örn Garòarsson
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Year: 2010
Rated: PG-13
US Premiere: May 28, 2010
UK Premiere: May 28, 2010
Official Website
Official Trailer
Movie Pictures

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