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May292010

PRINCE OF PERSIA is a colossal waste of time

Rating:  (Embarrassing)

If the Dagger of Time actually existed, I'd use it to go back and I'd stop Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time creator Jordan Mechner, Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and Director Mike Newell from setting video game movies back another 10 years. What studio will want to back another video game film after this bombs? Though I've certainly seen worse, few normal human beings will enjoy Persia. What the hell happened?

Executives at Disney and Ubisoft who came away impressed by pre-screenings of The Sands of Time should be fired. Prince of Persia is one of the easiest games to bring to the big screen and they've failed. All Bruckheimer and Co. had to do was put a competent director behind the wheel. Instead, they put the guy who directed Enchanted April and Mona Lisa Smile in charge. There are rumors that Mike Newell never once played the game; he had his assistant play it. Great choice. 

The film is watchable; it's just not good. Jake Gyllenhaal is well cast, as are most roles. I have no problems with the acting, save for a tepid performance by Richard Coyle (he played Prince Tus). Sadly, that is where my compliments end. Mike Newell's action scenes are poorly shot and the story has been so Bruckheimered it bears little resemblance to the video game it's based on. This is not the next Pirates of the Caribbean

The Story

I'm glad that Jordan Mechner (creator of the Prince of Persia video game series) was involved in the film's story, but its clear that neither him nor the men who refined his story know how to write for the big screen because they failed in the most critical area: defining the character of Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal). The best Persia games begin with the Prince escaping prison or evading attacks on his own. Playing these games, you quickly get a feel for who you are and your mission.

In the film, we're introduced to Dastan, two other princes, a king, and his brother in the first couple scenes. They discuss, on a high level, issues we don't care about, then go raid a city we know nothing about. Destan disagrees with the raid, but then singlehandedly helps it succeed. So who is he? He's apparently someone who thinks about good deeds, but does whatever he's told (with much acrobatics). What a great guy? We never trust or empathize with him until much later in the film. Filmmakers, if you're film is about one character, you should explain who he is and what he stands for pretty quick. With a boring main character, Persia's success quickly falls onto its action and cast.

Soon we encounter Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), who was in charge of the city Dastan and his Persian army just raided. Dastan is framed for murder (there are no courts here) and Tamina escapes the city with him. Enter two hours of sexual tension. Gemma and Gyllenhaal have good chemistry, but Mike Newell's heavy handed directing sometimes turns what could be fun banter into cheesy and required scenes of romance. In scenes where the two are set free, Persia succeeds. Most of the time, it feels forced.

Much of the plot is forced as well (as seen in the costumed scene above). Instead of creatively introducing plot elements and story twists, Dastan, Tamina, and other characters routinely monologue for a few minutes on what is happening and what their new mission is. Instead of being surprised when his dagger turns back time, Dastan tells Tamina (who clearly already knows this) that it must be a dagger that can control time. Then he informs us of all the consequences and benefits of using such a dagger, like he knows he's on candid camera. It's valuable information, conveyed in the least interesting way I can imagine. This kind of dialogue is often forgiven if inserted into a cut scene of a video game, but is out of place in a feature length movie. It happens consistently. Lazy writing. 

I also heard people say "You'll be the Prince of Persia" no less than five times throughout the film. Filmmakers, throwing in the name of the movie one time is acceptable. Two times and you've worn it out. More than that and you should pack your things; you're done. 

Acrobatics and action

For those who don't know, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a video game released in 2003 on the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube. In the same way Super Mario 64 reinvented Mario in 1996, it brought the classic side-scrolling Prince of Persia series into 3D. Now, instead of jumping from ledge to ledge like Super Mario Bros. you could jump around and slash enemies in all three dimensions. The series is known for its parkour-like acrobatics, which was not lost on the filmmakers (I wish it was). 

Prince Dastan (Gyllenhaal in the film) is a parkour master. Mike Newell probably learned this from his assistant who played the game for him. Instead of including some impressive, needed stunts from time to time, Gyllenhaal is forced to pull off ridiculous maneuvers at almost every opportunity. While that sounds fun, none of the acrobatics look good. Much of the action is set in a sound stage and it's obvious that Gyllenhaal (or stunt double) is roped up like a puppet. Newell lingers too long on some shots and cuts away too soon on others.

Then there's the slow-mo. Newell clumsily tries to imitate The Matrix by slowing down shots midstream, but doesn't up the frame rate to keep it smooth. A poor and inconsistent frame rate can ruin a video game. In the cinema, these types of slow-mos look as good as they did back in the 80s, before CGI effects: choppy and cheesy.

Alfred Molina and his ostriches

If there is one highlight of this film, it's Alfred Molina's character: Sheik Amar. If you don't remember, Alfred Molina was Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2 as well as 100+ other roles since 1978. Sheik Amar hates taxes and loves ostrich racing. During an escape, Dastan and Tamina set loose all but one of his ostriches. "No matter how good your skills as a promoter," Amar explains, "you can't organize an ostrich race with only one ostrich!" Ostriches are very emotional creatures, we learn, and prone to suicide. 

Since the screenplay chooses to ignore some of the more fantastic creatures in The Sands of Time video game, Sheik Amar's ostrich racing is one of the most unique portions of the film. I wish it lasted longer. Molina's character is hilarious and intelligent, suspicious of the government, and unhappy with taxes. Still, he ends up doing the right thing. I can't compliment Molina enough. He pops up as comic relief and manages to steal the whole show. His bodyguard, an expert knife-thrower named Seso (Steve Toussaint), should have been given more time to shine as well.

Overall

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is one of the best video game movies I've ever seen. Unfortunately, that isn't saying much, when you're chief competition is Mortal Kombat and Hitman. 

Persia was originally set to hit theaters in late 2008, but Disney decided to sit on it for a year and a half. I wonder what they did with the extra time. Did no one watch the film before it hit theaters? There is one rough cut toward the end, where a couple scenes were obviously removed for time, but other than that, nothing. The film could have been better. It needs a new introduction, some story tweaks, and an editor who can fix up Newell's poor action scenes, but it could have been a fairly decent romp through the desert.

Though watchable, this is an embarrassing effort by all involved. I can't see many fans or casual moviegoers leaving impressed by Persia. It isn't good. There is a clear dissociation between the game and film here, and it isn't a coincidence. Mike Newell doesn't understand video games and, as a result, he tries to imitate some scenes he saw in Persia (and sometimes Assassin's Creed), but fails to show the world why Prince of Persia is worth watching and not playing. And Jerry Bruckheimer, you're losing steam.

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