I often find myself frustrated that publicity for films always seems to fall upon the actors when I'm much more interested in what the writers and the directors have to say. I mean, I understand it — your average joe at best doesn't think about writers and directors, at worst barely comprehends that such people exist. Actors are, for better or for worse, the de facto faces of any film in which they appear that isn't by a superstar filmmaker like Spielberg or Scorsese or Tarantino or Nolan. But as I watched Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time it occurred to me that I too am wrong if I discount the contributions of the stars. Writers, directors, and actors form a tripod, and without three sturdy legs any tripod will fall, all this being a longwinded way to say that Jerry Bruckheimer's dreams of Prince of Persia becoming a new Pirates of the Caribbean franchise were dead on arrival because Jake Gyllenhaal is not and never will be on par with Johnny Depp.
I harbor no particular hatred for Gyllenhaal. Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain both made my top hundred movies of the last decade list. But his talents are best suited for inhabiting fairly understated characters that could conceivably exist in the real world, and he just can't breathe life into or lend humanizing charisma to this kind of epic fantasy. His forced, painfully fake British (?) accent, his astonishing lack of chemistry with his supposed romantic interest Gemma Arterton, and the way he delivers every wannabe Jack Sparrowian one-liner with a dull, wet thud all add up to a movie without a center, something to point at and say "look, it could be way worse" to anyone critical of Daniel Radcliffe's performance as Harry Potter.
Now, beyond Gyllenhaal, the movie is basically competent. Its pacing, narrative structure, and glossy production values actually resemble a real movie, which pretty much by default makes it the the best video game adaptation ever made (I almost typed "best video game movie ever made," but of course in light of Scott Pilgrim that's no longer within a million miles of being true).
The plot involves an orphan-turned-prince named Dastan being framed for the assassination of his adopted father, the king of the Persian Empire, during an invasion of the city of Alamut. Along with a magical dagger that can reverse time and Tamina, Princess of Alamut, Dastan goes on the run to prove his innocence, discover and expose the real killer, and get swept up in lots of action scenes. And although the story is predictable, the characters dull, and the romantic subplot as generic and disposable as any I've seen in years, as pure visual spectacle Prince of Persia ain't half bad. The parkour-flavored chase sequences are clever and exciting and its sweeping vistas of a mostly-fictionalized ancient Persian Empire look, for lack of a better term, very expensive.
But there are a couple huge problems. Firstly, as I mentioned above, the film version of Dastan has for some reason been reinterpreted from an actual Prince of Persia into an orphan the king plucked off the streets as a child. I suppose they did this to give him some Aladdin flavor, but it has the unfortunate side effect of making the Prince perhaps the first character in the history of game-to-film adaptations to actually become flatter and more softly-defined than he was in pixel form. If Dastan had been a literal Prince of Persia, arrogant, vain, and pampered, we could have watched him undergo a meaningful character arc and become a better man through the film. Maybe this could have even given some spark to the romance between him and Tamina. As is he's humble, noble, and goodhearted from frame uno, has no room to develop as a character, and is just really boring.
The second fatal flaw can be found at the very end of the film. Without giving away specifics or the identity of the real villain, the final showdown between Dastan and said villain takes the form of a laughable, weightless, impossible-to-follow festival of CGI nonsense that honestly might make the cut for my worst movie moments of 2010 list. The producer of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies should know better. I mean, which Pirates had the best climax? Curse of the Black Pearl, with its small, intimate swordfight between Sparrow and Barbossa? Dead Man's Chest, with its huge ship battle with the Kraken? Or At World's End, with its massive, apocalyptic showdown between all the forces of good and evil swirling in canyon-sized whirlpool? Curse of the Black Pearl, of course, by far. Sometimes less is more. Prince of Persia drops the ball in its closing minutes in a way that left a bitter taste in my mouth.
I'll stop short of calling the film awful, and I'll even grant that fantasy junkies such as myself may get enough fleeting amusement out of it to justify a Netflix rental, but the curse of no video game producing a legitimately worthwhile film adaptation remains unbroken. So what's the next attempt? Halo? Uncharted? Bring it on, I guess, but I ain't holdin' my breath.
2 Stars out of 5