Friday, June 4, 2010

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2010)

Overall verdict: 7.5/10

The Good: stays true to the spirit of the original games, action packed, fast paced, exceptional production design, likable characters, interesting deeper themes.

The Bad: no lull in the action for dramatic development, derivative characters, erratic camerawork, simple characterisations.

Current Availability Status: IN CINEMAS NOW

Video game adaptation movies never had a good track record, especially so following 2009's critically panned financial faliure "Street Fighter: Legend of Chun Li". But Prince of Persia: Sands of Time looks set to break that trend, boasting a blockbuster level budget and a screenplay by the original creator of the video games himself, Jordan Mechner. Mr Mechner had stated that he did not wish to do an exact translation of the "Sands of Time" game onto the big screen, but instead "taking some cool elements from the game and using them to craft a new story". The result is a fun summer blockbuster romp that is remarkably true to the spirit, look and feel of the video game franchise.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time takes place in a fantasy world based loosely upon the 6th century Persian Empire. After witnessing the courageous act of a young street orphan named Dastan, the King of Persia adopts him. Fifteen years later, Dastan (played by a buffed up Jake Gyllenhaal) has grown into a skilled warrior and, along side his royal blooded foster brothers Prince Tus and Garsiv, prepare to lead the Persian army to invade the city of Alamut. Spies working for Nizam, the persian king's brother and court adviser, have uncovered proof that Alamut was selling weapons to the enemies of Persia. The ensuing battle is swift and decisive, largely thanks to Dastans unorthodox methods and his street honed agility. During the seige, Dastan kills a royal guard and comes into possession of an ornately designed dagger formerly belonging to the princess of Alamut, Tamina. All is going well for the three brothers with Tus having decided to marry princess Tamina against their father's wishes. However the Persian King is mysteriously murdered and the blame falls on Dastan. Now on the run and with princess Tamina in tow, Dastan alone thinks he knows the truth; that the king's death was orchestrated by Tus, his natural successor. With his loyalty to his brothers shaken, the plot thickens as Dastan discovers the secret power of the dagger he procured and the magical "sands of time" which gives the user the ability to rewind time itself and change past actions thus changing the future. Secrets are unveiled, hidden agendas brought to light and what is might not be what it seems as Dastan travels across the vast empire in search of a way to clear his name, return the sacred dagger to a hidden temple and stop an evil scheme involving the sands of time that might alter the fate of the world forever.

Progressing at a breakneck pace, the plot may seem convoluted but is actually no more confusing than a classic adventure story straight out of the forgotten "Arabian nights" genre of films. Similarly, the story plays on the audience's expectations of predictability and then shatters it; just as one expects that Dastan is about to clear his name, a new unexpected revelation is thrown the audience's way. Smarter than your average blockbuster, Prince of Persia does a respectable job of fleshing out its theme of brotherhood. That trust between the three royal brothers is put to the test as each suspects the other of treachery. This plays on the viewer's expectations of the typical "Jealous other sibling who wants the throne for himself" type of story but manages to believably turn it on its head with some well placed twists. Some viewers might find themselves overwhelmed by the heavy story alone.

Apparently, Prince of Persia's lighter elements seem to come from its characters, both in skin tone and in dramatic development. True to its Arabian adventure roots, each character is simplistically depicted; the hero is a handsome hunk, the feisty damsel is exotically beautiful, the villains look genuinely sinister and so on. The impeccable cast does a wondrous job in "becoming" their roles and delivering one solid performance after another. A point of constant critisism of this movie was the lack of actual middle eastern actors as opposed to the mostly british cast selected for this movie. What some might forget was that Charlston Heston was not Israeli when he starred in "Ben Hur", nor was Yul Brynne an Egyptian when he played the role of a Pharaoh. It can be argued that Jack Gyllenhaal is as "Persian" as the American actors who played Sinbad or as Tom Cruise was German in the film "Valkyrie". Looking past the apparent racial dissonance of the cast, one could come to appreciate their earnest performances. Of particular note is the amazing chemistry between Dastan and Princess Tamina which may call to mind the "wise cracking scoundrel/haughty royal woman" relationship between Han Solo and Princess Leia from "Star Wars".

Like any good summer blockbuster, Prince of Persia is delivers a hearty mix of action and humor. Unfortunately, director Mike Newell seems to favor "jerky cam" shots as a way to make his action scenes feel more frantic. This seems to work for some scenes, such as Dastan's incredibly choreographed rooftop "Parkour" sequences but renders other scenes, like the sword fights, rather difficult to follow. There are also points in the movie where our heroes traverse the great middle eastern deserts within moments and hop from city to city as if Persia itself were no bigger than Singapore.

Nitpicks, simplistic characterisations and its seemingly rushed nature aside, Prince of Persia is a worthy addition to that near extinct hollywood-made Middle East fantasy genre. Its rich narrative is peppered with wit and the familiar charm of old period pieces while themes of trust and destiny are woven into an apparently familiar plot that is really as unpredictable as Dastan's own fighting style. Fans of the video game may thrill at seeing key scenes and signature combat moves faithfully recreated in live action on the big screen while casual viewers can enjoy a fun, refreshing and energetic adventure movie that might soon become regarded as the best video game adaptation to date.
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Go For it: if you were a fan of "Prince of Persia" video game series or would like a witty, refreshing tribute to a fading film genre.
Avoid it: if big fantasy themed summer blockbusters were never your thing to begin with.

Entertainment: A
Story: C
Acting: A-
Characters: B
Replay value: A-
"Brains": C+

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