Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer have gone to some length in its marketing to portray PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME as a spiritual descendant of their monstrously successful PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, but sadly the cross-referencing in the trailer credits ends the similarity. Director Mike Newell seemed an unlikely pick to helm this chaotic sandstorm of swordplay and wall-climbing stunts, though admittedly his dramatic battle was all uphill given the lackluster, arid script. It’s one thing to base a summer action flick on a popular video game series, but it’s something else entirely if that film has viewers longing for the storytelling depth of the thumb-numbing console incarnation.
Prince Dastan may well steal the magical dagger which has the power to turn back time, but in the role Jake Gyllenhaal likely won’t steal audiences hearts beyond his long-haired hunky appeal. Unfortunately his character is written as dull as a butter knife, and the actor’s own personal charm cannot overcome this deficit. The same fate befalls his co-stars Gemma Arterton as the Princess Tamina intended to challenge Dastan in a romantic battle of wits, Ben Kingsley as the lurking brother of the Persian King, and Alfred Molina who struggles valiantly to inject some humorous light into this formulaic, plot-laden adventure. Credit to Molina who always goes above the call of duty in these genre supporting roles (from SPIDER-MAN 2 to THE DA VINCI CODE), but once again he’s scuttled by an underwritten part he must heavy-lift just to get it off the page. I’ve liked Molina’s work since RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and I wish him much better luck with his role in THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE opening this July.
What truly undercuts the efforts of all above is the lifeless script by Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard. Their adaptation of Jordan Mechner‘s kinetic, interactive game universe remains stuck in quicksand from start to stop, and the wooden dialogue appears to have been lifted out of an action genre Mad Libs book replete with utterly uncatchy catch phrases. For all the talk (and there is much) about brotherhood, trust, destiny and honor, the cast remain islands of costumed personas with no emotional bridges to each other, the story or the audience. Meanwhile what should be a relatively simple plot becomes hopelessly sandtrapped with the intent of building up a murder mystery power struggle for the throne of Persia. Not that viewers are ever really fooled as to who’s behind all the skullduggery, and worse the final revelation still doesn’t amount to a satisfying final battle.
If the leaden story doesn’t get you, the apparent formula behind filling roles in this blockbuster will: actor+mascara+British accent = Persian character. I don’t knock the cast in this regard, but seriously, are there no Middle Eastern actors available in Hollywood? I can accept the English will forever play Romans in historical epics, Imperial officers in STAR WARS and the non-subtitled Nazis in World War II films, but this Anglicizing of Persian culture for marquee star power is just silly and, I suspect, more than a little insulting to ethnic groups who would like (expect?) to see someone with a shared background get at least a supporting role with PERSIA in the title! Prince of Caucasia is more like it. At least some meaningful casting of Persian performers would have lent the film some cultural credibility or good will. Alas, a very sadly missed opportunity for both Bruckheimer and Disney who threw their casting nets far and wide in their PIRATES adventures, which makes this disparity all the more harsh in contrast.
Expect Bruckheimer’s trademark brand of action sprinkled throughout to prop up the ponderous plot, though director Newell doesn’t appear up to the visually pyrotechnic challenge. Many fans didn’t like Mike Newell’s take on the HARRY POTTER franchise when he helmed GOBLET OF FIRE, and he fares similarly in PERSIA: the fights remain stunt sequences devoid of dramatic energy, as impressive as Dastan’s wall-scaling, leaping style of swordplay looks on-screen. Yet in the video games which inspired this adaptation, players enjoy some interactive control over the action. Newell’s handling of the high-flying gymnastics remain a woefully passive viewing experience, neither convincing that Gyllenhaal’s doing the work nor that Dastan is ever in true mortal danger as he flips and slips out of his foes’ hands.
Action and moments of wit may be enough to satisfy casual audiences who seek and expect nothing more from PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME on this holiday weekend. Check your brains and hunger for genre-level drama at the door to help pass the time in this 2-star disappointment.