Are there five less inspiring words in the English language than “based on a video game”? You never know, of course. “Based on a theme-park attraction” sounds, in theory, like it would be worse, but producer Jerry Bruckheimer beat the odds with Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, so anything is possible.
Bruckheimer’s latest Disney production, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, is based on a long-running video game franchise. Lightning has not struck twice. Not even a distant roll of thunder or a shadow of a storm cloud, except in the Jerry Bruckheimer Films logo at the start of the film.
No one expects it to be art. When a movie is called Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, you expect it to be The Mummy meets Aladdin by way of Tomb Raider, which it more or less is. It will be nonsense, but it could be rollicking nonsense. A charismatic hero, some chemistry with a love interest, a hissable villain, some energetic action scenes, eye-candy special effects, and we’re potentially in business. If the silly story makes some sort of sense — if we can follow the rules and care about the stakes — better still.
Instead, Prince of Persia barely makes an impression, like footprints in the sand during a sandstorm. In 116 minutes, there are maybe six minutes that might be sort of memorable, although it probably helps if you take notes. It’s not painful to watch, nor is it much fun. It’s just there. It’s about as close to a non-movie as you can get for $150 million.
Gaming fans may enjoy watching a beefed-up Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, October Sky) impersonate the acrobatic prince from the game, here called Dastan. As a leading man, Gyllenhaal succeeds only in reminding you (a) how much Brendan Fraser or Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie brings to the party and (b) how much more you would like being at that party.
Dastan moves like the Jackie Chan of ancient Persia, leaping, climbing and swinging around like, well, a video-game avatar. Today this is called parkour, but once upon a time, it was just what Jackie Chan did. Parkour can be great fun to watch. If only director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) would let us watch it. Instead, Newell (or his editors) assemble action scenes out of countless fragments of close-up motion devoid of context.
I can accept chaotic action editing as a stylistic choice in a Bourne or Batman film. In a silly spectacle like this, it simply deprives us of the joy of watching the stuntman’s art, or it merely creates the impression that we’re missing things the stuntman isn’t really doing anyway. For a now-classic example of movie parkour, see the opening chase scene from Casino Royale, a sequence that shows you exactly (a) what obstacles the characters face and (b) how they surmount them, in all their jaw-dropping splendor. Here, instead of being gobsmacked by how fast Dastan moves, we’re left with how fast the editors cut from one shot to another.
Dastan is an adopted prince, an orphaned street rat whose courage and derring-do in a marketplace dustup impresses the noble king (Ronald Pickup), who takes him into the palace along with his own sons, Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle), who sound more like TrueType fonts than characters, not that it matters. Then there’s the king’s brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley), whom no one would suspect is actually a traitor — unless he had seen a movie before. You might be thinking: A party with Ben Kingsley as the villain — how bad could it be? But even Kingsley seems to be wishing he were at a different party. One with Geoffrey Rush, maybe.
Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton, Clash of the Titans, Quantum of Solace) lives in the holy city of Alamut, which Tus and Garsiv attack because (a) Nizam tells them that Alamut is selling weapons to their enemies, and (b) they have never seen a movie before. Will anyone actually remember these names after the movie is over? After they take the city, it begins to look as if their intelligence was wrong, and there are no weapons, ha-ha. If you missed Green Zone, now’s your chance to relive the glory days of 2003.
Tamina is the guardian of Alamut’s great secret, a glass-handled dagger with magical powers. Tamina entrusts the dagger to a servant whose job is to keep it out of the invaders’ hands. Naturally, he leaves the palace and immediately gets into a confrontation with Dastan. Wouldn’t a better plan have been to have a super-secret hiding place in the palace for such occasions? Then again, once you start thinking, who knows where it might lead?
Later, we learn that within the glass handle are the “sands of time,” and that by pressing the jeweled hilt and releasing them, you can, yes, turn back time. Just think how handy that could be if, I don’t know, you were a servant charged with keeping the most valuable and dangerous object in the world out of the hands of invaders. Or, why not turn back the whole battle and defend the undefended east gate? I know, thinking again. Well, I have to do something to pass the time, don’t I?
Chemistry between romantic leads is an elusive thing. Why do I care about Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in the Iron Man movies, and not Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? It’s not because Downey is better than Law. Why do I enjoy the triangle of Will and Elizabeth and Jack Sparrow and not Jake Sully and Neytiri and Kokoum (or whatever)? Well, okay, that one’s easier to fathom.
Whatever it is, Gyllenhaal and Arterton haven’t got it. They squabble like screwball stars and almost kiss half a dozen times, but no lightning strikes, no sparks spark, no smoldering smolders. “Such a noble prince leaping to assist the fallen beauty,” she sasses. “Who said you were a beauty?” he retorts loftily. “There must be a reason why you can’t take your eyes off me,” she shoots back smugly. Why doesn’t it work? The notes are there, but the music doesn’t happen.
There’s a lot more: a den of thieves where Alfred Molina (the only player who seems to be having any fun at all) fixes ostrich races and inveighs against oppressive taxes (more topicality!), a gang of mystic assassins who use venomous snakes, an African knife-throwing expert (Steve Toussaint) and … well, actually, that might be it. At some point, I stopped taking notes. If you can explain the plot of Prince of Persia, please contact me. Not because I want you to explain it to me. Because you might land a job as a co-writer on the sequel.
In any case, none of it matters. Things happen, characters are murdered or nobly sacrifice themselves, and at some point, you figure it’s all just marking time, because the movie is about a magical knife that turns back time, which means the filmmakers can push the reset button any time they want to. The more they don’t do it, the more obvious it becomes to anyone who has seen a movie before that the big reset is coming, and most of what’s happened isn’t going to matter.
This conceit even undermines the story’s villainous machinations. Early on, someone is gruesomely murdered. Once the movie spells out the particulars of who killed him and what he’s planning to do with the dagger, the murder seems pointless. Why commit a murder you’re just going to undo later?
Like the video game, the story is set in an abstract anywhen, which ties in with its murky mythology. There are references to God and “the Creator,” but the origins of the dagger are connected with “the gods” in a pagan sandstorm version of the flood story. There’s a lot of talk about destiny and fate, but something about choices and free will too, I think. I’m not sure I can buy destiny, free will and time travel all in the same story. Any two of the three, maybe.
In the real world, of course, there are no do-overs. No matter how many times we joke after a movie that we want our two hours back, it never happens. That’s why our choices matter more than Dastan’s.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Sometimes rough action violence and menace. Tweens and up.