Newell Trades Grace for Gaudy Action in 'Persia'

Directed by: Mike Newell, Runtime: 116 minutes
Grade: C

The Prince of Persia series of videogames can essentially be described as parkour meets "Arabian Nights", a sandy puzzle embedded within sword-laden, mystical action that relies on a level of finesse to progress from point to point. It's ironic, then, that the Mike Newell-directed, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time swirls into a brassy, juvenile clunker that slogs through heavy battles in order to ratchet through the forgettable story. The bewildering thing is that some of the same people behind this picture transformed a vibrant franchise out of a nondescript theme park fixture, Pirates of the Caribbean, while letting this rich story arc slip through their fingers as a run-of-the-mill, sloppy high-dollar product of a blockbuster, one on the level of a sequel like Dead Man's Chest but without the strong first outing to lean on. That's the picture I'd like to see.

Dastan -- yep, he's got a name -- is the centerpiece of Prince of Persia, which liberally cherry-picks elements from the game into a by-name-only adaptation. The now-named prince, a rags-to-riches street rat scooped out of the gutter at a young age by the king of Persia (Ronald Pickup), has grown into a handsome man (Jake Gyllenhaal) who prefers drinking, brawling, and consorting with the people of the streets to the palace life. After he and his brothers conquer a holy city under suspicion of trading weapons with their enemies, the king meets an untimely death under what looks like an assassination at Dastan's hands -- a situation heightened by the panic of the king's shifty brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley) and the other two princes. Dastan hastily flees, along with the beguilingly beautiful Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) at his side, with an ornate dagger tucked in his sash that he discovered on the battlefield.

Handled similarly to a dozen other mystical artifact films with an unaware character discovering its hidden magic, Dastan soon learns that the dagger he's carrying -- when the jewel on its hilt is pressed like a detonator -- can reverse time, allowing only the wielder to alter events around him. He discovers it during a scuff with Princess Tamina, a scene that quickly introduces the ham-fisted storytelling in Newell's film. After we witness not one, but two situations back-to-back where Dastan obviously gets the gist of what the dagger does, he begrudgingly blurts out, "Incredible! Releasing the sand ... turns back time!" The fact that it took a team of writer to craft the script for Prince of Persia over the course of a few years, only to arrive at that level of exposition-heavy subtleness, reaffirms exactly what Bruckheimer and crew set out to do with this labored, silly swashbuckler.

Prince of Persia only offers a forgettable, sturdy-enough yarn to fling Dastan and Tamina across glitzy set pieces, loudly clanking swords together and tossing in leaps across buildings to feign a consistent stream of exhilaration. Instead, only on-again, off-again bursts of engaging action slip out, satisfying on that base level that a star like Gyllenhaal can generate against the Morocco-based shooting location. The film takes a few cues from the game in its visual flare, primarily in the parkour-style gallivanting across rooftops and along walls, which succeed when Newell doesn't dwell on the action for too long. It's when the Harry Potter director pulls away and pairs Gyllenhaal with overstepped computer-generated lavishness -- from collapsing stretches of quicksand to digital vipers and spiky whip-like weaponry -- that the blustery dazzle seeps into nonsense, in a fashion that might leave one wanting for the classic charms of the likes of The Thief of Baghdad. That's not to mention one particularly maddening knife throw crucial to the story that demolishes the boundaries of reason with its distance and accuracy.

Clearly the effect of casting hinged on individual talent and sex appeal, the pair of Jake Gyllenhaal and Quantum of Solace's Gemma Arterton share very little chemistry as Dastan and Tamina, creating meek stabs at playfulness that carry little charm and even less romance. Surprisingly, Gyllenhaal's beefed-up physique and oily scruff looks the part as he charismatically fleshes out the Prince, while Arterton's beauty stuns as a bronzed, exotic cleric with a destiny-driven poise. But when their off-the-cuff banter kicks into gear, exchanging between lukewarm, British-accented discussions about the dagger's importance and their nitpicking on each other's status as arrogant royalty, it doesn't convince us of a romantic link, allowing that part of the fantasy tale to fall flat. Thankfully, Alfred Molina intermittently pops in to perk up their deadweight connection as a skeevy ostrich-racing kingpin, Shiek Amar.

Though it eventually bursts into a wave of big-picture whimsy, combining the deceit that killed a king with the collision of celestial forces that could bring about the end the world, Prince of Persia never escapes that level of underworked clumsiness to make it all feel satisfyingly grand. In fact, the absurdity that kicks into gear right at the halfway point becomes more memorable than the superfluous developments themselves, slapping together logic-defying maneuvers and crammed-in plot elements -- like the presence of the black-shrouded, Dastan-hunting Hassassins and an 11th-hour exchange of the dagger's possession -- into a stream of cumbersome action that obliviously stampedes along with no intention of stopping. Though still in-the-moment fun, Mike Newell's direction comes across as overstated, bland, and ultimately forgettable because of it.


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