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Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

dir: Mike Newell
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For me there’s an element of watching your kid performing onstage during the Christmas pageant or something similar, in terms of watching this flick. I mean it in the sense that I’m going to be more forgiving in my expectations, and that I’m actively going to like something that others will grind their teeth through.

My fandom for the whole Prince of Persia enterprise goes far back enough that I was but knee-high to a grasshopper; an ancient Persian grasshopper on some grass stalks in the ye old deserts of another time and age.

Yes, I’m talking about the computer games, the many games that have come out with a highly limber and acrobatic protagonist who leaps about defying gravity and fighting bad guys with his scimitar. I’ve played all of them, from the Apple IIe version, through to the Commodore 64 version, and the three million or so versions on PC. I even played the last one, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, which proved, to me at least, that I’ll practically buy anything with those fated words scrawled across the cover in fancy script. If they bring out a desert topping and floor cleaner called Prince of Persia, I’ll probably end up buying that too.

I wasn’t too ecstatic when I heard they were going to make a film version, because I thought the likelihood would be that it would suck. That’s not just because of the longstanding prejudice against game adaptations, which claims that they always suck. But, let’s face it, most flicks suck, so the likelihood would be high regardless of where it originated from.

So while I was happy for Jordan Mechner to get a hefty payday (the original creator of the ‘property’, as they call it), I didn’t think I’d have even moderate expectations going in. In reality, I love the setting and the character so much (regardless of its half dozen incarnations) that I was always going to be too eager.

Naturally, even if I try to apologise for it through gritted teeth, or try to convince you that my kids singing a terrible Christmas carol aren’t tone deaf, you’re going to see through it. So I’ll be honest about it: it’s not a good flick.

The problems aren’t so much the way that the ‘property’ has been realised on the big screen, or where it comes from: it’s a naturally cinematic premise, and could always have looked good. You could also think that the people responsible for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies could do it properly, since they took a premise based on a Disneyland rollercoaster and turned it into a hit film for the whole fucking family.

The problem, ultimately, is that the script is lame, the dialogue lacks wit, the action devolves into epically incomprehensible visual blather, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton, for whatever charm and charisma they might possess, have nothing to say to each other of any worth or merit.

There were so many goddamn scenes where I actually got caught up in ‘what are they going to say or do now?” only to have them let me down time and time again. It’s like listening to a stand up comedian who keeps giving the set ups to jokes, only to deliver a punchline that is always “I, um, don’t know” delivered in a flat and slightly ashamed voice.

I’m sure Jake Gyllenhaal, he of Donnie Darko, Zodiac and Brokeback fame, who is a decent actor in his own right, hoped this would be a franchise cashcow that would bankroll the rest of his career. I’m sure he thought the stuntmen and the computer programmers that made it look like that’s really him jumping around like a spider monkey on crack would be up to the task. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t look like any incarnation of the prince character that I’ve ever seen, or that I will ever see again (there’s no way they’re going to sequel it up, no way), but that didn’t matter either.

They spend an inordinate portion of the flick fulfilling the fan service requirements, delivering a few of the trademark images or movements from some of the games. These work reasonably well. In that sense it’s mostly a parkour / free running exposition, and it works well enough. The problem is the plot, despite its sly allusion to the recent Iraq War II.

This prince, called Dastan (Gyllenhaal), is the adopted brother of the two Persian king’s heirs, Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (the tremendous Toby Kebbell). Found on the street by the elderly, we presume, pedo, the kind king decides that nobility and blood alone are not the sole determinant of someone’s worth or potential.

Noble sentiments indeed, but they end up costing him his life. Someone convinces the brothers to attack the apparently holy city of Alamut, based on the evidence that Alamut has weapons. Lots of weapons. I don’t know if they’re of mass destruction, but considering the multiple scenes later on where people are talking about finding these weapons, where are the weapons, why did we attack if they don’t have weapons, it’s hard to miss the completely un-tongue-in-cheek references.

Dastan uses all his street skills to greatly speed up the invasion of the city, much to his brothers’ delight, but to the regret of the city’s inhabitants. The hottest and haughtiest of the city’s leaders is some girl wearing more fake tan than can possibly be safe for one person’s skin. Tamina (Gemma Arterton) completely plays this role like the Princess Leia of the first (fourth?) Star Wars film, only with far less spine or credibility.
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Arterton is a very attractive woman, and a competent actress (at least in other stuff I’ve seen her in, like the excellent recent adaptation of Tess of the D’Ubervilles), but she’s got fuck-all to work with here. She could have been played by something constructed entirely of Styrofoam, bikini wax and bronzer, and it would have mattered not. She alternates only between childish and weepy, regardless of the Tremendous Burden She Carries, which is, in truth, no burden at all.

In the first of the games produced by Ubisoft, the prince was given the ability to turn back time for only a few seconds at a time. This greatly aided the player in terms of being able to get through some of the more frustrating traps and sequences. The danger in including this element in the flick is that something existing to make your job as a player easier could easily bore you as a viewer if it’s overused, or in fact used at all. It’s about one of the only things the story gets right.

Which is slim pickings, I have to say. It’s used sparingly enough not to fuck up the momentum, but the Dagger of Time’s existence means it's harder to get invested in the story. When I’m the one using a loophole to get out of a difficult situation, then I appreciate its existence. When I’m watching the characters in a flick use a reset button, in a flat and predictable manner, then I’m not going to be engaged.

The Sands of Time, their origin and what they do is pretty daft, I have to say. And the climax of the flick, depending as it does on something sticking a knife into something and someone else pressing a button on that something, to arbitrarily jump back to some other place, is a plot conceit so transparent, so poorly handled, so dull to watch and contemplate that I really thought the whole thing became pointless: that is, if it wasn’t pointless from the start.

Sure, the games depend on this kind of shit, but games have completely different ways of selling this stuff, film’s a different medium, as so many caustic film reviewers are fixated on pointing out. There was nothing preventing the makers from having a coherent and meaningful or even enjoyable script, even with the mystical shit going on. They just chose not to.

All attempts at humour, at wit, at meaning crumble like poorly constructed sand castles. I honestly didn’t care about anyone or anything in this flick.

To add insult to injury, for reasons that made sense to the monkeys who worked on this script, in a room full of other monkeys, decide that plundering the rich lore available to them in the whole Prince of Persia franchise isn’t enough: what audiences really wanted in such a flick was reminders of how much better the Lord of the Rings was than this. So they lift entire sections from it.

The laziest lift is in these evil black wearing characters who have whole sequences where they’re just riding towards our alleged hero and his cohorts, all wearing flowing black hooded robes, on horseback, in slow motion.

The Ringwraiths? You’re really going to lift them wholesale, have nine or so of them, and think people aren’t going to call you on this bullshit, Jerry Bruckheimer?

Visually I guess the CGI desert cities look all right, and the sweeping, Lawrence of Arabia-like music is very reminiscent of, hmm, I’m not sure, it definitely reminded me of something. The bad editing, though, the soul-draining attempts at comic relief, and the overall personality vacuum effect of the scenes where people talk and stuff, all amount to me wondering whether they wanted you to feel like you were watching something made out of cardboard. Everyone is slumming in this, except for Sir Ben Kingsley, who gets what he deserves. As something of a villain, he manages the inexplicable: to be bored, boring and to overact at the same time. How does he do it?

If the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks were a success, and they certainly were monetarily, they certainly declined over time, becoming terrible by that dire, incomprehensible third instalment At World’s End. With the same megaproducer in charge, being Jerry Bruckheimer, they managed to skip the part of the franchise that’s decent, being the beginning, and achieve the level of suckitude usually reserved for Part 3s, in Part 1!

Way to go, you team of saprophytes, way to go.

5 times my disappointment made me want to cry tears of hot gritty sand out of 10

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“Did you know that ostriches are suicidal?” – no, I didn’t know, or care, for that matter, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

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