With the combined might of uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Jake Gyllenhall’s rockin’ abs and respected director Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time hits Memorial Day weekend with a big question mark: will this video-game based movie finally pass over the threshold of wretched to mediocre and inspire a franchise in vein of Pirates of the Caribbean? I’ll always argue a movie’s success should be based on its merits as a film rather than comparison to a video game, but the short answer is this: Prince of Persia is both fun and miles beyond its pixel-inspired brethren. And while it shares the common theme of a heroic orphan thrust into a world of magic and adventure, it does lack a Depp-like meat hook and falls short of Pirates charm– though, surprisingly, not by much.
Steeped in the craggy canyons, expansive deserts and mile-high minarets of a romanticized height-of-power Persian Empire, The Prince of Persia succeeds in taking the Cliff note narrative of 2003’s video game of the same title– invading prince discovers a dagger able to turn back time and eventually helps a princess recover it to thwart the evil plans of a duplicitous court adviser–and beefs it out with enough neutral (though slightly overstuffed) mythology, plucky character and surrounding quest to elevate it beyond the simple cut and paste/flat fan service of previous game to film failures.
To its credit, Prince of Persia feels sufficiently epic, loaded with lavish costumes, desert-rosed set design and deeper than expected plotting. Prince of Persia’s characters follow the same route–they’re not deep or groundbreaking by any means but they fare decently, if only acting as well-dressed decently acted pins to bounce Jake Gyllenhall’s Prince Dastan toward a date with destiny. Exceptions include the always dependable Alfred Molina as the just-short-of-scene-stealing crowd-pleasing thief/man of business sidekick, Sheik Amar. Gemma Arterton (as Jake’s foil Princess Tamina) brings a fun (if at times skirting the bounds of overbearing) pluck to the Princess Leia-cut heroine– as well as a refreshing reminder of what beautiful women look like when they don’t pursue anorexia’s shallow facsimile of “beauty” by throwing up what they just ate at the craft services table. Ben Kingsley, as nefarious royal adviser Nazim, effortlessly oils his way through a villainous role he seems to phone in during the B-level off-season.
In whole, Prince of Persia delivers on its promise of summer movie enjoyment and should leave adventure seeking audiences both satisfied and transported. That’s not to say it’s without its flaws– by midpoint, the sword fights and roof-jumping action (based on the core game play of the video game series) tend to lose steam on each of their many incarnations and the muddy mythology weighs in where it doesn’t need to. This all leads to a supremely disappointing third act conclusion, again inspired by 2003’s Prince of Persia game. The telegraphed trickery is weak, with an undermining twist that disappointingly lands a body blow to the character building goodwill and dramatic exploits introduced through the first two acts.
Still, despite its flaws, there’s a good-natured spirit that threads its way through the film. And while Prince of Persia never excels where it should, it remains a fun old-timey narrative in an otherwise dull summer and a movie whose goodwill made it hard not to enjoy.