If you like every movie you've ever seen, you'll love Prince of Persia. You'll also love Prince of Persia if you've never seen any movies ever, because it'll all be new to you. There's also a third alternative, one taken by many of my fellow patrons at the midnight showing from which I've just returned: Show up high. You'll love it!
For the rest of us, if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all. Are non-white characters being played by white people? Of course! Everyone already knows that Jake Gyllenhaal is the titular Prince Dastan, but he's not the only blue-eyed Persian in this flick. There's two older brothers, one a blue-eyed guy who looks sort of like a Mormon Jesus Christ, and another, angrier brother who is at least dark-complected, but he looks more like Zack de la Rocha than anything else. (Next up for Disney—Martin Mull IS Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope: The Imax Experience.)
Moving on, is there a lot of jumping around after a MacGuffin that ultimately makes little sense? Sure is. How about a love angle? You know, maybe a princess to match the prince, and she's feisty and doesn't like Dastan at all! To start with, anyhow ... but then, wouldn't you know it, things get mushy with one long kiss right before the boss level, uh, I mean climactic fight.
Our princess this time Gemma Arteton as Tamina, and she didn't even have to change costumes from her role as Io in this spring's snoozer Clash of the Titans. Is there a physically intimidating black fellow who appears to be a villain but is indeed a hero? Sure is, and you can guess what happens to him at the end of the second act pretty easily. (He doesn't stick around for hugs and medals, let's put it that way.) And the third act, why yes, as a matter of fact there IS a fight over a giant hole of some sort.
And this being a Disney flick, there are lots of cute animals—ostriches, mostly, which the wasted dude behind me really enjoyed—and plenty of bloodless battle scenes and even an important message. The message of Prince of Persia is simple yet profound: There are no weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. I'm just kiddin', though the WMD thing is in there. The message is to listen to your heart and that there are many kinds of family.
Prince of Persia doesn't just crib from movies in general, it cribs from many specific ones. The baddies are mystical assassins right out of the Persian irregulars in 300. The city of Alamut (not where the assassins in the previous sentence are from, oddly enough) looks just like one of the sets from The Lord of the Rings. The free-running gymnastics is a cross between The Thief of Baghdad and anything by Jackie Chan. There are some Indiana Jones-style deathtraps. Dastan is introduced in some sportive brawl, just as Sherlock Holmes was this past Christmas. And Oscar winner Ben Kingsley reprises his old role as the guy who sat in the chair in Bloodrayne.
And I swear to God that Alfred Molina, who is usually a good actor, decided to channel Watto from The Phantom Menace for his character, the saucy tax protestor Sheik Amar. (And the taxation riff is right out of Robin Hood from earlier this month; a little something for the Tea Party set, one supposes.)
There isn't a shot in the movie that doesn't come more or less directly from some other movie, and Prince doesn't even try to raise the stakes or use modern technology to refresh the old tricks. The fight in Alamut looks especially chintzy, as if it were shot as a Disney theme park's Alamut Adventure Ride rather than on a properly built and lit location in either London or Morocco.
As far as the story goes, there really isn't much of one. The creepiest-looking fellow in the royal family is the secret baddie. He wants to travel back in time and become king, and handily enough there is a lot of time-traveling sand under Alamut. So there is a pretense to invade, a magic dagger filled with said sand, a lot of tracking through trackless deserts, and about 90 minutes of watching other people play video-game battles without even a bong being passed back and forth (my midnight screening excepted).
Nor does the plot hold together— the "guardians" know where the sand is and what a pain in the butt it would be for planet Earth if it all spilled out, and both Dastan and our spoilerrific antagonist have a guardian in their pocket, but I guess bad guys don't issue prospectuses when it comes to magic sand reclamation. The goodies, on the other hand, can't shut up about it. Also, there really is no reason for the dagger to exist at all, except that it is much easier to carry around and hide and pass back and forth than 14,000 tons of glowing sand. As in all good video games, though, there is a Save Point that comes in quite handy for Player 1, uh, I mean Dastan.
Nor does Prince of Persia even try for a lick of authenticity. Forget the ethnically dubious casting of many of the principals—the ostrich races are held "every Tuesday and Thursday," to mention two days named after gods not worshipped anywhere near Persia. Our evil genius is smart enough to work out time travel and manipulate empires, but not smart enough to wear gloves when applying poison to a robe, and the poison only works (by smoldering and crackling, like all poisons) at dramatically appropriate moments. The prince who looks Jesus Christ is apparently very interested in fair trials and the rule of law, like all good 11th-century emperors, though he's also totally cool with torturing his own spies.
The antagonist, on the other hand, wants to avoid a trial to keep from creating a public spectacle—because the 11th century is apparently full of mass-media organs reporting on the royal family with all the frequency of Hello! magazine. The Persian Empire is supposed to be huge, but everyone zips back and forth from city to city—generally without the assistance of a road—as if they were walking their camels around the block. And sure, the Persians were actually a multiculti bunch, but how many Oxbridge and American Midwestern accents were floating around back then? Hell, a few of the actors just gave up on their characters and just shouted their lines as if they were playing angry sunflowers in the fourth-grade play.
Nobody eats a thing. And yes, lots of movies don't have characters that eat, but Dastan is constantly fondling an apple. There are even feasts! Someone who isn't a CGI cobra take a bite out of something already!
This might just be the contact high talking, but somewhere buried deep within Prince of Persia there was a decent movie. A movie that someone cared about making, a movie that could have easily been 40 minutes shorter, or at least fortified with some interesting dialogue or characterization. A movie with a director and a cinematographer who cared about spectacle enough to offer up some new framing for the same old set pieces.
Sure, Prince is based on a video game and there's not much to work with, but the first Pirates of the Caribbean was based on the NAME of an amusement park ride (and not a very fun one), and that movie was approximately 48 million times better than Prince of Persia. I used algebra to come up with that number, and did you know that it was the Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi who coined the term algebra? Pretty neat, huh? Persia is a pretty neat place, actually. Maybe one day someone will make a cool fantasy movie about it.