Man, Prince of Persia was a pretty sucky idea for a Donnie Darko prequel.
So, let me get this straight. In this movie, Donnie's ancestor, Dastan Darko (played again by Jake Gyllenhaal), who lives in that period of history when everyone was white and British, discovers time travel is actually the result of magic sand. Hence the full title, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It's actually magic sand contained in a magic dagger, and if you press the button on the dagger, you get practically a full minute of do-over. Someone else wants to get all the sand for some horribly selfish reason, but if he does it, then the whole world will be destroyed. In order to keep that from happening, Dastan dons his ancient hoodie and goes jumping around to find the magic rabbit. Or something.
Okay, okay, I know that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is not a prequel to Donnie Darko, but you have to admit, the parallels are too amusing to let pass. People that are younger than me tell me the movie is actually based on a video game, but I had never heard of it before this production was announced. Based on all that goes on in the action sequences in Prince of Persia, I imagine that the game involves a lot of jumping around, bouncing off walls and leaping from rooftop to rooftop, traveling through strange spots on the map and avoiding getting killed. That's essentially what goes on in the movie, and the action sequences often resemble their gaming origins. There are even moments where the director, Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) pulls back to take us on a schematic tour of the environment, letting us know where we need to go to clear this level and get on to the next one. Smart for a video game, kind of lame in a movie.
Not that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is all that bad. I thought it was going to be at first, was even preparing a joke along the lines of, "Prince of Persia? More like Tsar of Turkey!" (Get it? Because the movie is a turkey!) The first half hour or so is one giant collection of clichés. Dastan, the adopted son of the King of Persia (Ronald Pickup), has gone with his two brothers to conquer a foreign city said to be manufacturing weapons of mass destruction for Persia's enemies. Only, when they get inside, Dastan's eldest brother Tus (Richard Coyle, a.k.a. Jeff from Coupling) is embarrassed to discover he was given some bad intelligence.
As it turns out, the city actually has a cache of
oil magic sand and whoever set up this mission faked the data so no one would know what he was really after. To cover his tracks, he kills the King and frames Dastan for it. Dastan goes on the run with the princess of the city, Tamina--which is essentially Gemma Arterton playing the same character she played in Clash of the Titans and somehow looking even better doing it. She is the one protecting the magic sand, she hips Dastan to the mystical knife's properties, and she tries to go one way (to protect her ancient order) and Dastan tries to go the other (to clear his name). To fulfill his goals, he needs to get back to the capital and debrief the wisest person in the nation, his uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley, who likes eyeliner and is starting to look like Robin Williams). The princess never shuts up, and she hates Dastan--are those wedding bells I hear?
Just about everything in the set-up is familiar and the delivery is achingly dull, but the movie takes a turn for the better around the time Alfred Molina shows up, playing an old-world version of a Tea Bagger (the dude really hates taxes, and he's willing to make up stories to avoid paying them). Molina's Sheik Amar is a smooth-talking scoundrel, and unlike most everyone else, the actor doesn't take himself too seriously in the role. His levity brightens the proceedings, and though I wouldn't call the rest of Prince of Persia very good, it at least moves at a brisk pace and has some solid chases and fights. I only got bored whenever Newell and his army of screenwriters (four if you include Jordan Mechner, the guy who created the video game) stop the action to once again explain the plot. I lost count of how many exposition scenes there were, but essentially, if you need to pee, any time Jake Gyllenhaal says, "No, you don't understand," that's a good time to go.
For a good portion of the movie, I wasn't sure if Gyllenhaal wasn't cutting it as an action hero or if it was just bad direction undermining his credibility. In just about every big stunt, Newell destroys the illusion by slowing down the derring-do for a few seconds, always at the crucial moment where it's painfully obvious that it isn't Jake jumping through the air. I don't know who decided that adding slo-mo to fights made them more thrilling, but if I had a magic dagger, that's the guy I'd go back in time to find. I'd give him such a slap, you have no idea.
Thankfully, sheer momentum is against Newell, and once his finger is knocked off the pause button, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time does manage to get its pulse rate up. Honestly, it's not enough to wholly recommend the film, but The Sands of Time wouldn't make for a bad night in. For ladies (or men) who want to see Jake Gyllenhaal without a shirt, or for men (or ladies) who want to catch a peek at Gemma Arterton's belly button, or for nerds who want to relive the video game and see some mostly good effects (dude, worst looking snakes and lions in movie history), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time delivers at least a little on all counts. And if you wait until the DVD, you might get some extra bare chest and belly button scenes they had to cut out. It might even look better on your TV because, well, it's a video game, and that's where they belong.
Or, you know, if you're looking for a date movie compromise this weekend, shirtless Jake Gyllenhaal should totally win out over botoxed Carrie Bradshaw. Plus, despite not having seen Sex and the City 2, I'm certain Prince of Persia, even with all of its white faces, is more sensitive to Arab culture.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.