The words “video game adaptation” are enough to strike fear into the hearts of most moviegoers, and for good reason: they’re all shit. Prince of Persia, however, has a better chance of success with audiences outside of the game’s loyal nerd devotees, as it was brought to the screen by producer Jerry Bruckheimer – no stranger to giving unlikely stories mass appeal. How I scoffed when he announced he was making a film based on a theme park ride ... and how he scoffed back at me when Pirates of the Caribbean turned out to be rather successful (don’t worry though, we’re still buddies *playfully punches Jerry’s shoulder*).
Prince of Persia stars Gyllenhaal as the adopted Prince Dastan (adopted because, I presume, the filmmakers don’t want him to appear spoilt or entitled: he may be a Prince, but he’s one of us!). When Dastan is framed for the murder of the King, he escapes with a rival Princess (Arterton), and together they must keep a mystical dagger out of the clutches of the bad guys and save the Kingdom. By pressing a button on the dagger’s hilt, Dastan can momentarily turn back time (I don’t think there’s a Pause or Fast Forward function, though there is a Menu button on the side to bring up the TV guide). If the dagger should fall into the wrong hands, a sandstorm could be unleashed that will wipe out humanity ... or something.
The intricacies of the dagger’s powers don’t matter too much, it’s really just a macguffin to get our heroes on a quest across the mystical lands of Persia (beautifully realised), and on this level the film is satisfyingly simple, if a little formulaic: there’s a prince, a princess, an evil baddie and clearly understandable goals and conflicts. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many blockbusters get that basic stuff wrong: witness the nonsensical, incoherent Pirates sequels. It’s the sibling rivalries and family betrayals that keep what drama there is in Prince of Persia ticking over, as Dastan must prove his innocence to his vengeful brothers, as well as unmask the real killer (I’ll give you a clue: it’s Kingsley).
Probably concerned that the film might be a little too “exotic” and, well, Persian for American audiences, Bruckheimer’s Persia is populated by English actors with deep tans and heavy eyeliner (except for the one American, Gyllenhaal, who speaks with an English accent here). This treatment of ethnicity is a curious approach when you think about it, but then again it worked for Pirates, although you can’t help but wonder what’s next – Tom Hanks as Shaft? That said, Gyllenhaal absolutely nails the accent, and indeed much of the film’s charm comes from his likeable performance. He doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for the Prince (that would naturally have been the young actor that plays Ben Mitchell in Eastenders), but he’s bulked up for the role and is, to be frank, a magnificent looking specimen. He’s matched by Arterton as Princess Tamina, who is sexy and feisty despite being saddled with some incredibly clunky expository dialogue. She also looks stunning ... in fact, it’s hard to work out which one of them is prettier, though I will say that by the end of the film this reviewer was shouting “WHY CAN’T I QUIT YOU?!” at Gyllenhaal. Though hardly Bogart and Hepburn, the banter between the two leads is engaging enough for us to root for them. Some mildly amusing comic relief is provided by Molina in the “mildly amusing sidekick” role, along with a depressed ostrich (yes you read that right). Kingsley is fine as Dastan’s evil uncle, although you can see in his eyes that he’s excited about his paycheck.
With all this talk of Bruckheimer, you’d be forgiven for missing the fact that the film is actually directed by Newell, of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco fame. He’s the latest in a growing Hollywood trend of directors that aren’t well known for action being hired to helm enormous action franchises. Other examples include Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) directing Marvel’s upcoming comic book movie Thor, and Rob Marshall (Chicago) helming the next Pirates of the Caribbean film (and I still can’t believe Woody Allen directed Iron Man 2). The thinking here seems to be: hire these guys to take care of the story and the characters, and give the film some heart, while the action and special effects are passed off to the experts. Chief expert in this case is 2nd Unit Director Alexander Witt, veteran of the first Pirates and Bourne films, who brings some of the same exciting rooftop “parkour” stuntwork he brought to Casino Royale to this, as well as the obligatory and efficiently staged swordfights, chases, shooting arrows and ... err ... flying attack snakes. The special effects are first rate throughout.
Of course, all the running and jumping and swinging comes straight from the source material, though it has to be said the filmmakers weren’t that faithful to the game: at no point does the Prince attempt the same jump 30 times, fall to his death repeatedly, lose his temper and throw his controller at the wall, then realise he didn’t save his game and throw his PlayStation out the window screaming: “FUCK YOU GAME, YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT.” Prince of Persia isn’t going to change your life, it lacks a Captain Jack Sparrow-like character to really connect with audiences and push the film into the box office stratosphere, and it rarely strays from formula, but overall it’s a reasonably exciting and charming couple of hours at the movies.
EXTRAS ★★ The Blu-ray disc has the feature film, plus Cinexplore: The Sands of TIme, which gives you the chance to explore behind-the-scenes footage during the film when a daggar pops up on the screen (you can also access these snippets directly via an index); and a two-minute deleted scene. The DVD disc contains another copy of the feature film, but for some reason it's five minutes shorter than the Blu-ray version; plus the featurette An Unseen World: Making Prince of Persia (15 minutes).