Monday, 31 May 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

It's less an unwritten rule, more scripture, that movies based on videogames are rubbish. With two Tomb Raiders, Doom, Silent Hill and more largely sold down the drain, uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer clearly is setting his sights higher in light of his Pirates success. After all, if he can spin gold out of adapting a Disney ride, it seems unfair to dismiss Prince of Persia outright as a bankrupt cash cow. He’s even got a respected British director (Mike Newell) and unusually classy cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley) on board, so the signs are good right?

But of course, expectation is a dangerous thing. And Persia lacks that vital diamond in the rough (quartz in the hourglass?) that arrived in the form of Johnny Depp. Persia is content to play the formula a lot safer, sticking closer to its creaky source (Jordan Mechner’s 2D Apple platformer). Yet it clearly derives even more inspiration from the recent, glossier X-Box adaptations of the same name, lending a plasticized, charmless gloss to an otherwise handsome production.

Hence, the pedigree is often cast into a hectically-paced CGI-wind, with a potential action-star performance from Gyllenhaal underwhelming in spite of his likeability. He stars as the eponymous hero, Dastan, orphaned into the Royal Family of King Sharaman of Nasaf. Along with his brothers Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell), and shady uncle Nizam (Kingsley), he launches an attack on the city of Alamut under seemingly fabricated allegations of weapon smuggling (any subtext ends right there). When Dastan is framed for the King’s murder, he is forced on the run, along with the beautiful Princess Tamina (Arterton), and the mysterious, time-bending dagger that could shape the course of the world…

It’s a strange beast, with Newell’s brisk direction undercut by swooping, CG-enhanced shots that cut far too close to the source material and sever our emotional involvement. It’s an odd blend of the physical and the fabricated, a buffed up Gyllenhaal impressing us with his stunt work one minute, while the next we’re faced with an obvious avatar leaping off towers in the style of the games themselves. Likewise, the forced love-hated banter between Gyllenhaal and Arterton lacks the zip of Bruckheimer’s Caribbean jaunts, forcing us to derive intermittent pleasure from those in the wings: Coyle’s charismatic ruler-in-wating Tus, Alfred Molina’s ostrich-racing wheeler dealer and an enjoyably shadowy Kingsley who will at some point be unveiled as the dastardly antagonist.

The gimmicky, dimension-shifting dagger also disappoints in its incoherent presentation, coming off as all flash and no substance. In fact the pedestrian plotting fails to exploit anything interesting out of the time-travel premise…That is, until an unexpectedly gripping final 20 minutes that moves the film out of pixellated and into cinematic territory, bravely re-writing not only the narrative but, cleverly, our own emotional response. It’s an audacious, imaginative end to a major blockbuster but one which, tellingly, only comes when it has the guts to cut the apron strings. Ultimately though, the film boasts all the shape of a sandstorm itself, and is as memorable as the remains scraped out of one’s shoe after a trip to the beach.

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