Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a huge disappointment: a movie where the combined visions of a talented director (Mike Newell) and one of today's brightest video game designers (Jordan Mechner) have been horribly compromised. Because I admired Newell's excellent mob picture Donnie Brasco (1997) and also happen to have a lot of affection for Mechner's original 2003 Sands of Time game, I went into this movie with high expectations. But the story has been spun into some kind of gross, self-parodying Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off. Even the production design by veteran Wolf Kroeger is an anticlimax; there is nothing here as spellbinding as, say, those magnificent icy villages that Kroeger designed for Altman's Quintet (1979). Not once did I believe that I was looking upon real Persian architecture; it's all just a collection of fake, candy-colored sets that feel like they were built to inspire a Disney theme park ride. Aladdin was more believable than this.
The casting choices are the best thing about the movie. I always thought it was a good idea to cast Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince (his name in the movie is "Dastan"), and he does a decent job performance-wise--although the script miserably never gives him enough ammunition to anchor the picture. Gemma Arterton plays the princess Tamina as double-crossing and sexy, and she and Dastan exchange some witty lines of screwball banter in every other scene. As he did with House of Sand and Fog (2003), Ben Kingsley again proves that he is capable of playing a Persian-Iranian, and if you felt cheated that he didn't turn out to be the villain in Scorsese's Shutter Island, rest assured: he's the bad guy in this one. Alfred Molina seems to be having more fun that anyone else in the cast, as a small business sheik who teabaggingly protests the government for leaving small businesses with the tax burdens (in one of the movie's thinly-veiled political allegories). Toby Kebbell and Richard Coyle have screen presence as Dastan's brothers, although we are never for a moment able to believe that they are Persians; we see them as white actors, and they play their characters as white.
And that's a perfect lead-in to one of my first complaints about the movie: this is ancient Persia from an Anglo-Saxon of view. The characters worship "God" instead of "Allah"; the skin color of every single major character is either black or white (or half-Spaniard, in Molina's case); and everybody speaks with a very thick English dialect. I suspect that Disney just didn't want audiences to know that this story takes place in what is essentially now modern-day Iran. I'm not implying that the filmmakers are prejudiced towards Iranians or that the movie is conservative (the plot does involve a failed search for weapons of mass destruction), or even that there is anything wrong with white actors playing English-speaking Muslims. Howard Hawks did it with Land of the Pharaohs (1955), after all. But I would appreciate it if the movie had acknowledged its Muslim history and theology a little more appropriately, and it does not.
I beat the 2003 video game on my Nintendo Gamecube shortly before I went out to see the movie. From what I've observed, the film is only faithful to the game in the sense that Dastan makes a big mistake that affects the whole kingdom, and is forced to team up with the princess to find out how to use the magical Sands of Time Dagger to reverse back time and correct everything that has gone wrong. Both the game and the movie end with Dastan stabbing some kind of giant hourglass and reversing back time to face off with the villain.
But the key difference between the game and the movie is in the enemies that Dastan faces: what was so fun about the game is that Dastan accidentally causes everybody in the kingdom to transform into skeletal freaks and monsters. No such thing happens in the movie, in which the enemies are just armies of boring, cardboard-cut-out soldiers ordered to hunt down Dastan after he becomes a fugitive from the kingdom. This makes me wonder if the filmmakers were so uninterested in the story that they couldn't even expand the budget to allow the film's enemies to be monsters as they were in the game, even despite the fact that monsters were the enemies in the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks.
The screenplay is so bloated and disorganized that for some reason it had to require the contributions of at least three writers--and Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard all seem to be straying about as far from Mechner's exotic ideas as possible. In a story that, as a video game, involved a lot of gritty slicing, dicing and awesome stunts, why have they filled the movie's screenplay with stupid little subplots like ostrich racing, and waitresses with elongated feathers on their heads? There is a scene in which Dastan gets in one of those fistfights where hordes of men are crowding around in a circle to cheer and bet on who wins, and this scene brings back ugly memories of a similar scene with Cuba Gooding, Jr. in Pearl Harbor (2001).
We can be thankful that Mike Newell is no Michael Bay (or Gore Verbinski), and although he has no doubt made a few turkeys in his career, he is also a solid craftsman who had accomplished plenty of smart films. I was hoping that with him directing Prince of Persia, he would be able to work with producer Jerry Bruckheimer in the same way that Ridley Scott worked so fantastically with Bruckheimer during the production of Black Hawk Down (2001). But Prince of Persia is not one of those movies, and whatever aesthetic conceptions Newell might have had are in short supply.
I did enjoy the way Newell films the time-reversal sequences: he has the characters look upon the dagger with astonishment, as the blade shines brightly, sands flies through the air, and oblivious characters in the background start moving backwards. And I like how Newell does not feel confined by the PG-13 rating and sometimes gleefully pushes the envelope of violence; a scene where a character's throat is slit is just as potent as the basement ambush in Donnie Brasco. And Newell pays special care to the strained relationship between Gyllenhaal and Kingsley's characters, much as he did to the strained relationship between Pacino and Depp in the earlier film. In effect, Newell tries his very hardest with the material he has.
I complained at the beginning of the review that I don't think Gyllenhaal's Dastan anchors the film very successfully. And that is true: the movie does not have much of a heart. I don't mind that Dastan isn't a three-dimensional character--how could he be, in a story where everybody is a stereotype? But I would have liked to see more emphasis on how unique of a protagonist Dastan is, and why we should be rooting for him at all. In the game, the Prince can do all sorts of amazing things: he can swing from one bar to the next, he can do backflips, he can run across walls for long periods of time, and he can kick off walls (whether he's going up or down).
In the movie, the Prince's skills are terribly restrained. They are treated with such a lack of care by the filmmakers that we get the impression that everything that Dastan does could have been done by just about anybody. In one of the few sequences where we actually see Dastan kicking off walls, Newell dreadfully elects to show it in long-shot. Why doesn't he want us to gaze upon Dastan's stunts with awe? Why is Dastan rarely ever even given the opportunity to perform a stunt? We have no reason to believe that Dastan is any more special a fighter or athlete than his brothers--or even his villainous old uncle.
I did, however, manage to smile when I saw a dedication in the end credits to the late Tomi Pierce. She of course was Jordan Mechner's co-writer on The Last Express, which is my favorite computer game of all time. There is a rumor going around that Mechner is planning a Last Express movie--perhaps to be directed by Paul Verhoeven. I look forward to this project with much anticipation, and I will even say this: if Verhoeven is forced to drop out, I am convinced that Newell would be a fitting replacement. If he and Mechner secure a first-rate screenplay and a knockout cast, the result could be one hell of a movie.