The Prince of Persia series of videogames can essentially be described as parkour meets "Arabian Nights", a sandy puzzle embedded within sword-laden, mystical action that relies on a level of finesse to progress from point to point. It's ironic, then, that the Mike Newell-directed, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time swirls into a brassy, juvenile clunker that slogs through heavy battles in order to ratchet through the forgettable story. The bewildering thing is that some of the same people behind this picture transformed a vibrant franchise out of a nondescript theme park fixture, Pirates of the Caribbean, while letting this rich story arc slip through their fingers as a run-of-the-mill, sloppy high-dollar product of a blockbuster, one on the level of a sequel like Dead Man's Chest but without the strong first outing to lean on. That's the picture I'd like to see.
Dastan -- yep, he's got a name -- is the centerpiece of Prince of Persia, which liberally cherry-picks elements from the game into a by-name-only adaptation. The now-named prince, a rags-to-riches street rat scooped out of the gutter at a young age by the king of Persia (Ronald Pickup), has grown into a handsome man (Jake Gyllenhaal) who prefers drinking, brawling, and consorting with the people of the streets to the palace life. After he and his brothers conquer a holy city under suspicion of trading weapons with their enemies, the king meets an untimely death under what looks like an assassination at Dastan's hands -- a situation heightened by the panic of the king's shifty brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley) and the other two princes. Dastan hastily flees, along with the beguilingly beautiful Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) at his side, with an ornate dagger tucked in his sash that he discovered on the battlefield.
Handled similarly to a dozen other mystical artifact films with an unaware character discovering its hidden magic, Dastan soon learns that the dagger he's carrying -- when the jewel on its hilt is pressed like a detonator -- can reverse time, allowing only the wielder to alter events around him. He discovers it during a scuff with Princess Tamina, a scene that quickly introduces the ham-fisted storytelling in Newell's film. After we witness not one, but two situations back-to-back where Dastan obviously gets the gist of what the dagger does, he begrudgingly blurts out, "Incredible! Releasing the sand ... turns back time!" The fact that it took a team of writers to craft the script for Prince of Persia over the course of a few years, only to arrive at that level of exposition-heavy subtleness, reaffirms exactly what Bruckheimer and crew set out to do with this labored, silly swashbuckler.
Prince of Persia only offers a forgettable, sturdy-enough yarn to fling Dastan and Tamina across glitzy set pieces, loudly clanking swords together and tossing in leaps across buildings to feign a consistent stream of exhilaration. Instead, only on-again, off-again bursts of engaging action slip out, satisfying on that base level that a star like Gyllenhaal can generate against the Morocco-based shooting location. The film takes a few cues from the game in its visual flare, primarily in the parkour-style gallivanting across rooftops and along walls, which succeed when Newell doesn't dwell on the action for too long. It's when the Harry Potter director pulls away and pairs Gyllenhaal with overstepped computer-generated lavishness -- from collapsing stretches of quicksand to digital vipers and spiky whip-like weaponry -- that the blustery dazzle seeps into nonsense, in a fashion that might leave one wanting for the classic charms of the likes of The Thief of Baghdad. That's not to mention one particularly maddening knife throw crucial to the story that demolishes the boundaries of reason with its distance and accuracy.
Clearly the effect of casting hinged on individual talent and sex appeal, the pair of Jake Gyllenhaal and Quantum of Solace's Gemma Arterton share very little chemistry as Dastan and Tamina, creating meek stabs at playfulness that carry little charm and even less romance. Surprisingly, Gyllenhaal's beefed-up physique and oily scruff looks the part as he charismatically fleshes out the Prince, while Arterton's beauty stuns as a bronzed, exotic cleric with a destiny-driven poise. But when their off-the-cuff banter kicks into gear, exchanging between lukewarm, British-accented discussions about the dagger's importance and their nitpicking on each other's status as arrogant royalty, it doesn't convince us of a romantic link, allowing that part of the fantasy tale to fall flat. Thankfully, Alfred Molina intermittently pops in to perk up their deadweight connection as a skeevy ostrich-racing kingpin, Shiek Amar.
Though it eventually bursts into a wave of big-picture whimsy, combining the deceit that killed a king with the collision of celestial forces that could bring about the end the world, Prince of Persia never escapes that level of underworked clumsiness to make it all feel satisfyingly grand. In fact, the absurdity that kicks into gear right at the halfway point becomes more memorable than the superfluous developments themselves, slapping together logic-defying maneuvers and crammed-in plot elements -- like the presence of the black-shrouded, Dastan-hunting Hassassins and an 11th-hour exchange of the dagger's possession -- into a stream of cumbersome action that obliviously stampedes along with no intention of stopping. Though still in-the-moment fun, Mike Newell's direction comes across as overstated, bland, and ultimately forgettable because of it.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time leaps onto Blu-ray from Disney in their standard-practice case holding three discs: a Blu-ray, a silver-topped DVD, and a Digital Copy disc. While a glossy cardboard slipcover has been included that replicates the artwork on both the front and the back, nothing else aside from Disney Movie Rewards points are available inside.
Video and Audio:
Though I have my reservations about Mike Newell's film, impressions that strengthened with a second go-around, it's hard not to get wrapped up in the high-definition experience that Disney offers with Prince of Persia. Preserving the 2.4:1 aspect ratio of its theatrical screening within an AVC encode, the luxurious gold palette exudes extremely well-defined detail and rich contrast usage, looking even a few steps better than how it did via DLP projection at the theater. A few instances showcase a heavier level of grain, mostly in the desert shots, but the level of detail present in Tamina's costume/body paint, the dagger, and the computer-generated effects all appear with a crispness that's pretty darn breathtaking. Along with that, there's a LOT of motion that goes on in the frequent shaky-cam photography, from Dastan's vaults between structures and the close-ranged fighting, and the Blu-ray disc nimbly preserves the natural frames-per-second flow and the range of motion to a stunning level.
The experience really takes off, however, in the DTS HD Master Audio track, which fully embodies the term "active". Boisterous activity barrels from the speakers at several points, from the light roaring of the crown in the holy city to the dust spiraling amid desert tornadoes. These all invade the separated channels of the audio track, emphasizing the grace of sand granules and the myriad of vocal points tinkering in the backdrop. The most aggressive scene in the film occurs roughly two-thirds the way in with the serrated whip device used by the Hassassins, which flushes clear to every direction of sound stage and forcefully into the high-to-mid points of the lower-frequency channel. It's aggressive and fluid, without feeling too gimmicky as the weapon slings around. There are a few moments where the dialogue feels parsed, something noticed in the theater as well, which makes a few bursts of dialogue feel artificial. Aside from that, this will stick out as one of the punchier, forceful high-definition sound renderings to hit the streets this year.
Temptation arises to give Prince of Persia a higher level of recommendation based on its fierce rendering of the film on Blu-ray, but the meager supplements available on the disc cancel out that urging. Taking the lead, an interactive CineExplore: The Sands of Time feature plays alongside the film, making several one to three-minute splashes of decent behind-the-scenes footage and jovial, marketing-level interviews available with relevant sequences. The bits cover Jake Gyllenhaal's extensive training, filming on location in Morocco, making Gemma Arterton look exotic, as well as other stunt-specific content. With the push of the button, the dagger on the screen "activates", rewinds with the film (actually kind of neat, though obviously just alternate data files), and zips over to the content. For those that don't want to deal with that hassle, all of the bits are available in a static gray-backed "Index" menu by pushing the Pop-Up Menu button.
Aside from that nifty feature, however, all we've got is one, one, Deleted Scene (1:26, HD), as well as a slate of Previews for other Disney Blu-rays -- including Fantasia and The Lion King, both which look spectacular.
Fans of the series will find some satisfaction within Jake Gyllenhaal's poise in Prince of Persia, as his stealthy projection in the robust action sequences and bursts of ledge-jumping allude to the film that could've been. However, under Mike Newell's direction and Jerry Bruckheimer's production, this take on the videogame trades grace for heavy amounts of clunky, oftentimes overly-embellished action and a lack of chemistry between the lead and his romantic interest. What results of The Sands of Time is an otherwise ho-hum, entertainingly disposable picture with blasts of action within a rickety storyline. Disney's high-definition rendering of the film isn't to be missed, offering an excellent aural and visual experience that will prove to be a worthwhile Rental on Blu-ray.