Desert movies should be as sprawling and epic as the never ending sand dunes on which they take place. But Prince of Persia, despite epic aspirations, feels slight, small, empty, and worst of all forgettable. Itís the kind of movie that just doesnít leave an impression. It passes in front of your eyes but never gets past the retinas. Like a camel crossing the sand, its tracks are erased by the wind almost as soon as it passes, eliminating any sign of its presence, as if it were never there. The best thing I can say about The Sands of Time is that, to quote the late, great Douglas Adams, itís mostly harmless.
Prince of Persia comes closest to grabbing your attention early on. In the movieís opening sequences weíre introduced to Dastan, a prince of the ancient Persia. Before an act of kindness brought him to the royal family, Dastan lived as a street urchin. It was there, in the dusty markets, that he learned amazing skills of agility, which back then he used to stay alive, and now uses to protect the Persian empire. Though Great Britain wonít be populated for centuries, as played by Jake Gyllenhaal (who even with a Hollywood tan may still be the palest man in the Middle East), Prince Dastaan (and everyone else in the movie for that matter) has an inexplicable British accent. Fortunately, Jakeís footwork is better than his Alec Guinness impression.
Much of the movieís early scenes send Gyllenhaal leaping and climbing and clamoring around ancient buildings in what amounts to a cinematically dazzling Parkour demonstration. Parkour is a method of overcoming obstacles by adapting oneís movements to the environment. In practice that means the fastest way to get past a parked camel might be to go over it, rather than around it, and the best way to get off a roof might be to jump down onto an awning, leap over to an overhang, and swing down to the ground using a bit of rope. Even though some of itís computer enhanced, Prince of Persiaís great fun as long as Jakeís jumping and diving and slithering past obstacles, until that is, the plot kicks in.
Thereís a murder and Dastan is falsely accused. Thereís some confusion as to who the storyís villain is, but only to the people in the film, not the audience, since this is a movie which contains Ben Kinglsey. Thereís a girl whom Dastan must take with him on his journey to clear his name. And thereís a dagger which, when you push a button on its hilt, rewinds time to give you another shot at whatever it is youíve just screwed up. The daggerís a neat little device, unfortunately it can only be used once or twice and only to rewind brief periods of time. Use it more and Prince of Persia could have become a sandier version of The Matrix and by extension a lot more fun. But since the daggerís uses are limited what weíre left with instead is the kind of movie in which the hero stops, far too often, in the middle of trying to keep from being killed, to kiss the girl. Worse weíre told early on that by the end of the movie Dastan will find a bigger time rewinder which can reset everything, making everything we watch him do, basically irrelevant.
Gemma Arterton is the girl and the chemistry between she and Gyllenhaal is as forced as the chemistry between her and Sam Worthington, back when she sucked just as much in Clash of the Titans. Sheís not helped any by the movieís dialogue, which is clunky and contrived, or its editing, which seems to have been accomplished by applying to razorblade to the film whenever the directorís kids got bored.
Itís that editing which keeps the movie from feeling big, the way any massive, desert adventure should. A sandstorm is reduced to a dust devil, since we cut away to see Dastan sitting inside a homemade tent (which we never seem him build) before the wind gets really impressive. A journey across a massive desert between cities is reduced to the ancient world equivalent of a fifteen minute drive from Manhattan to the Bronx. Just hop on a horse and youíll arrive at the next plot point, the desertís not so much a place as a convenient backdrop.
Thereís no sense of wonder in Prince of Persia and thatís a shame because itís a film which should be built almost entirely on wonder. The daggerís a lot of fun, on the rare occasions itís used; Dastanís Parkour skills are attention getting, and despite his bad accent Jake Gyllenhaal isnít all that bad as Dastan. But Prince of Persia feels listless and far too often lazy. It doesnít earn any of the excitement and romance it tries to create and so the audience is never really invested in any of it. It saved in spots by Alfred Molina, who seems to be acting in brownface, but also applies a toothy grin as he channels every adventure movie con man youíve ever imagined all at once, and makes a character out of it.
Prince of Persia really is mostly harmless. Itís based on a video game and in a world where video game adaptations are consistently awful, maybe mostly harmless is a step up. Maybe mostly harmless is good enough, if youíre a gamer starved for games which have been successfully turned into Hollywood blockbusters. Somehow I doubt such a moviegoer exits, real gamers are at home holding Xbox controllers, which leaves Prince of Persia no good reason to be where it is, taking up space in your local movie theater.
Reviewed By: Josh Tyler