Fellow gamers, breathe a deep sigh of relief. Hollywood have, at long last, made a video game adaptation that is not complete tripe. A game adaptation that both avid gamers and casual moviegoers can sink their teeth into. Most remarkably, a game adaptation that is almost, so nearly, as enjoyable as the game it is based on, that being the critically acclaimed action platformer Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
And ‘almost’ as fun is more than good enough for me, especially given how highly I regard the video game. In fact, The Sands of Time is one of my all-time favorite games; a masterful blend of fluid action, innovative gameplay, stunning atmosphere and memorable characters. Director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), with the distinct blockbuster touch of producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Caribbean), has faithfully bought many of these attributes to the big screen with just the right amount of cheese, the only real disappointments being some unexceptional performances and a patchy framework. Qualms aside, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time remains an all-out action spectacle that, in terms of pure entertainment value, puts recent historical epics Robin Hood and Clash of the Titans to shame.
The story pertains to a number of the concepts of the original game, but it certainly isn’t quite as gamers will remember it. Living as a street urchin in medieval Persia, young Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is adopted by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) after showing courage in the streets, making him the titular prince. Thirteen years later, Datsan and his brothers — Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle) — decide to invade a holy city under their Uncle Nazim’s (Ben Kingsley) authority that they are harbouring WMDs (being advanced swords and arrows, of course). However, the spirited princess of the city, Tamina (Gemma Arterton), insists there are no such weapons stock (sounding familiar?). Before she can prove it, she’s reluctantly exiled from the city with Dastan after he is framed for his father’s murder.
As Dastan soon discovers while devising a plan to prove his innocence, Princess Tamina was hiding a super weapon after all; a powerful dagger that grants the wielder the ability to turn back time for a single minute. This godly power drains a portion of the sand contained within the handle of the dagger, a rare grain only obtainable from an ancient hourglass (of sorts) known as the Sands of Time. With the power of the dagger to help him out of tricky situations – yes, it can be a bit of a narrative cop-out — Datsan won’t stop until he has cleared his name and saved the crown from corruption.
The video game was always more interested in delivering exciting action than a memorable story, a trait that has somewhat carried over to this film adaptation. However, that’s not to say the Prince’s big screen adventure is uninvolving. It’s clear a great deal of thought has been put into the screenplay by co-writers Boaz Yakin and Jordan Mechner in making an adaptation that is both faithful to the game, yet accessible to a new audience (although they could have done without the Iraq war allegory). The writing can be little clunky at times when divulging the plot – there’s a lot to convey, and it’s often repeated, so expect a few exposition-heavy scenes – but the film never loses its rhythm as it weaves its way to a predictable yet entertaining climax.
What really shines about Prince of Persia, however, is that trademark Bruckheimer dynamism. The epic soundtrack, luminous set pieces and impressive CGI provides plenty of eye and ear candy, but it’s the action that really brings this film to life. Just like the video game, each chase sequence and sword fight is a stunning spectacle, all of it beautifully choreographed, impressively animated and fluidly edited under Newell’s direction. Cinematographer John Seale (Poseidon, Cold Mountain) has clearly done his research, emulating the game’s feel in the way he captures the action, while clearly having fun with numerous stylistic techniques to punctuate some of the Prince’s more breathtaking moves. There’s plenty of “Wow!” moments here, and they didn’t even have to resort to 3D.
It’s a shame, though, that this energy is sometimes at odds with the cast. No, the fact that none of the actors are actually Iranian isn’t what bothers me; the English accents don’t distract, and I don’t recall anyone blaming Pirates of the Caribbean for not having any Caribbean pirates in the cast. It’s rather that the usually standout Ben Kingsley frequently looks as though he’s got somewhere better to be, while Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, Brothers) — physically a perfect fit for the Prince, doing most of his own stunts — doesn’t quite possess enough charisma to sell his character as a true hero, which is surprising since he often exudes charm in the low-key dramas he’s done in the past. That said, there’s definitely some chemistry between Glynnenhall and the alluring Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Clash of the Titans), and while their romance plays out almost exactly like Orlando Bloom’s and Keira Knightley’s in Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s amusing to watch their frivolous relationship develop.
Speaking of Pirates of the Caribbean, one can’t help feel that this film is missing a key character like Jack Sparrow. While Johnny Depp’s brilliant performance is what made the swaggering and self-serving pirate a pop-culture phenomenon, Prince of Persia doesn’t have a comparable character that audiences will remember as fondly and, most importantly, will devotedly come back for more in subsequent sequels. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2, An Education) as the dodgy broker Amar is the closest the film has to Sparrow, and while he’s genuinely hilarious and steals nearly every scene he’s in, he isn’t integral enough to be considered a main player.
But so what if Prince of Persia falls shy of reaching the high expectations set by Pirates of the Caribbean; it remains a feverishly fun adventure flick that will thrill audiences of all ages. Let’s not forget that it’s also a clear cut above all the video game adaptations that have come before it. Not exactly hard, I realise, but it’s still something to celebrate.
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