Prince of Persia | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Prince of Persia

Jake Gyllenhaal successfully turns action-fantasy star in a sword-and-sandals epic.

click to enlarge Desert fabulous: Ben Kingsley, Jake Gyllenhaal and Richard Coyle come dressed to thrill.
Desert fabulous: Ben Kingsley, Jake Gyllenhaal and Richard Coyle come dressed to thrill.

C'mon, admit it. You've seen the pictures: Jake Gyllenhaal, all pumped up, his ocean-crisp baby blues peering from behind wavy Samson locks that hang down past his shoulders. He's been workin' it for months now, and finally, it's here -- Prince of Persia, with Jake as a sword-and-sandal action hero, based on a video game, and a set of Burger King glasses (or is it Pizza Hut)?

How can you take something like this seriously? Fortunately, you can't -- or at least, he can't -- or at least, he sort of can't. All of the characters, and hence the actors who play them, go through Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time as if their lives depended on it. Ha! Guess what? They do! But Gyllenhaal doesn't have to worry about that -- spoiler alert: he lives!  -- so he can relax,  twinkle a little and smile. (If he wants to be taken seriously as an actor, he must stop smiling.)  

Prince of Persia is sort of OK, although I beg you, please, don't go to see it because I said that. It's breathless with action, and every now and then, they stop to explain why X just did Y to Z. I like the fact that you have to listen to get it all, and I like even more that it makes sense, or "sense," in the way any epic fantasy adventure makes sense, in its own sphere of reason. (Plus it's not really too complex.) But of course, it's all very silly, and the ending is ultra-big, which means it's ultra-silly.

The story involves fratricide, a thirst for power and a magical dagger that can turn back time when you press the jewel on top of it. (What? You thought this was a historical drama about Zoroaster?) The good guy is Gyllenhaal's Dastan, an orphan boy who performs an act of bravery in public in front of the King of Persia, who adopts him as his third and youngest son. Years later, as young men, the three brothers get along well. But then eldest Tus (Richard Coyle), going against his absent father's advice, decides to attack the holy city of Alamut because he's been told by his beloved Uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) that it has secret forges to make weapons to sell to Persia's enemies.

You should be smiling a little now: In this alternative universe, it's Persia who fears clandestine SMDs (swords of mass destruction), and it's the king's right-hand man who convinces everyone that it's real. I won't go further into what happens, but it does involve Tamina (Gemma Arterton), the sagacious princess of Alamut, who at first plays Dastan like a dulcimer. 

I may be reading too much into Prince of Persia, but it almost seems like director Mike Newell and his screenwriters try to riff on classic Hollywood cinema: As they travel across the desert, Dastan and Tamina needle each other like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert (their wall of Jericho is a tent in the middle of a wicked sandstorm); and when Dastan goes into his gravity-defying derring-do, he leaps suspiciously like Errol Flynn's stunt double. And Newell is clearly playing modern politics when the wise father-king tells his son, "You're not ready to rule." But rule he does: He's the one who wages war on Alamut.

Alfred Molina, chomping up the sandery, adds a little more fun to the works as a dubious entrepreneur, and Kingsley manages to ham it down nicely as his aging younger brother who wants to be king. The actors use British accents if they don't already have them, presumably to make themselves sound more exotic, and that takes the edge off Gyllenhaal's natural twang. The first time we see him in the movie, he's shirtless and sweaty, rolling around on the ground in physical combat with another guy. Like I said: workin' it. He goes through the movie with light-heartedness, yet without making fun of the material: Dastan is cocky but likable, and the actor who plays him is perfect for the part.

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