Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Movie Review: Prince of Persia

My Memorial Day weekend was filled with moving every item in my house (thanks to refinishing hardwood floors), having Christmas with my in-laws (yeah, you read that right), and generally exhausting myself to the point of stupidity. Thus, I was unable to complete any sort of gigantic love letter to the supple abs of Jake Gyllenhaaaaaaal in Prince of Persia: Feel These Things, They're Rock Hard. Thus, I turned the duty over to the capable Justin Senkbile, who is far less susceptible to the charms of the Gyllen-clan. I will note that the video game was a bigger blast than a mouthful of nitroglycerin, and that I'm a mega-sucker for swashbuckling when it's done for funsies (not for serious like with Robin Hood). But enough about my needs, let's take a peek at what Justin had to say!

Persepolis in Fragments
Jake Gyllenhaal gets muscular, saves ancient Persia
Justin Senkbile

This might sound cynical, but as far as I’m concerned a movie based on a video game has its fate sealed long before it’s been shot. A boring, cobbled together collection of catch-phrases and blood-lettings seems to be the best one can hope for. What a delight, then, to find director Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, an exciting little adventure movie (though it’s really very big), draped over a plot that might sound vaguely familiar.

Persian princes Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) believe the leaders of the Holy city of Alamut have been harboring weapons and providing them to Persia’s enemies. Without much proof of this, they, along with adopted brother Dastan (Jake Gyllenhall), invade the city and virtually destroy it. They never do end up finding any weapons.

As it turns out, the impressionable young princes had been manipulated by the King’s advisor Nizam (Ben Kingsley), who had used a search for weapons as a pretense for his own aims. What follows is basically a scramble to clean up the mess left in the wake of that fateful invasion of Baghdad... er, I mean Alamut.

As opposed to the war in Iraq, the situation in Persia benefits from the bravery of Dastan, a classical movie hero (he’s more Douglas Fairbanks than Tarzan) who’s as acrobatic as, well, a video game character. There’s also some business involving a dagger with time traveling capabilities, and an unusually chaste romance between Dastan and Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton, who also played a large role in this year’s mind-numbing Clash of the Titans).

Since the majority of movies of this ilk seem to somehow get everything wrong, even the easy stuff (I’ll mention Titans again here), Persia is a pleasant surprise. In terms of a summer action/adventure picture, there’s really nothing to complain about. Hey, when everything else at the multiplex is either a hymn to rich, white values or uncomfortably close to being bald-faced highway robbery then, yeah, Persia is a breath of fresh air.

For that, we can thank the fact that this movie not only knows where it stands, it downright embraces it. Persia totally ignores the allure of “realism”, that ever-elusive and increasingly abstract ingredient that most modern action movies think can be obtained with some dark photography, a lot of pseudo-psychology and a handful of brooding actors. In Persia, the lines are clearly drawn between good and evil, bravery and cowardice. It’s silly and proud of it, a fun, harmless popcorn movie.

As always, we have actors as well to thank for what works in the movie. Kingsley is particularly good, but I imagine he could probably play this character in his sleep. The always wonderful Alfred Molina stands out too, hamming it up as a conniving but ultimately good hearted (go figure) Sheik named Amar. Gyllenhall is also worth mentioning, and his work is more of a surprise. Dastan is pretty far from Zodiac or Brokeback Mountain, but he proves a perfectly convincing hero in Gyllenhall’s hands.

Nearly as important as the actors are the beautiful, meticulously designed sets and costumes in Persia, something I generally have little to no interest in, but are impossible to go unnoticed here.

Ultimately, Prince of Persia is an escapist adventure picture that gets just about everything right. I can’t say it’s anything incredible or profound, but it is something that’s become quite novel: a good, old-fashioned night at the movies.

Grade: B

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