Reel Critic: 'Prince' is more like a pauper

Some of the best films ever made have one thing in common: rich source material. When a screenplay is based on a novel, biography, stage play or historical event, it can often be quite challenging to do justice to the original material within the confines of an almost two-hour format. As the studios grasp at straws in the high-stakes world of feature films, they have increasingly come to rely on concepts that were never intended to sustain an entertainment vehicle costing hundreds of millions of dollars with a running time of 90 minutes or more.

Some immensely popular films have been based on comic books, which at least are serials that have been produced over decades, during which dozens of characters and complicated plots have been introduced. Even a few movies based on “Saturday Night Live” sketches such as “Wayne’s World” and “The Blues Brothers” have been successful. Nonetheless, films based on “SNL” material overall have a losing track record with such bombs as “Coneheads,” “It’s Pat,” “A Night at the Roxbury,” “The Ladies Man” and now “MacGruber.”

The flimsiest premise on which a major motion picture can be based has to be a video game character. With the possible exception of the two “Lara Croft” films, video game characters have not been particularly successful movie subjects. About the only thing a popular video game can offer a filmmaker is name recognition. Video games have little or no dialogue and one-dimensional characters and require a huge leap of faith regarding the capabilities of the characters, which usually defy the laws of physics.

It is therefore somewhat surprising that Walt Disney Pictures reportedly spent more than $200 million to produce “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Prince Dastan. Although using video game characters essentially gave them a blank page on which to base the screenplay, the three credited writers and “Prince of Persia” game designer Jordan Mechner decided to stick to a fairly basic “sword and sorcerer” plot.

Prince Dastan, a former street urchin, is the adopted son of good King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup). The king also has two biological offspring, Prince Tus (Richard Coyle) and Prince Garsiv (Toby Kebbell). The Persian army, led by heir-to-the-throne Tus, is coerced into attacking the sacred city of Alamut by the King’s brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley), as they are reportedly supplying weapons to Persia’s enemies.

Prince Dastan defies his brother’s orders and leads his guerrilla band over the walls of Alamut. After a series of scuffles, they manage to open the gates so the Persian cavalry can ride in and lay claim to the city. There they encounter the legendary beauty Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), who is entrusted with guarding the holy city and its relics. Just before the city falls, Tamina dispatches one of her subjects with the dagger of time, but Dastan intercepts him and claims the relic as a war prize.

Sharaman is furious that his sons attacked the holy city, but is placated somewhat when Dastan presents him with a captured holy vestment from Alamut that turns out to be poisoned. Dastan is charged with the king’s murder, and he and Tamina barely escape with their lives.

With a price on their heads, Dastan and Tamina venture deep into the desert, where they attempt to traverse the dreaded valley of slaves. There they encounter the nomad Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina) and his knife-throwing henchman Seso. Amar captures the duo to collect the reward, but not before attending his beloved ostrich races.

Eventually, Dastan finds out the dagger of time can actually send the user back in time for one minute. Tamina tells him that Alamut actually sits over the legendary sands of time from which the dagger must be replenished. This is the true reason that Alamut was attacked and Dastan and Tamina realize they must return to prevent this power from falling into the wrong hands.

The plot is very complicated, and what has been presented is only a glimpse of the full story. This is but one of the many problems with “Prince of Persia,” not the least of which is the casting. While this is supposedly a story of Persia about 600 B.C. to -700 BC, the American Gyllenhaal plays the title character, and the rest of the main cast is British. The most entertaining character by far is Sheik Amar. The tax-avoiding con man is on the screen for only a few minutes, during which the movie is far better than at any other time.

“Prince of Persia” is not 3-D, and the added effect and premium ticket price are not missed. The film features one action sequence after another, which, while very high quality, are obviously computer-generated. The extremely complex plot only serves to cobble together the action.

“Prince of Persia” is entertaining enough unless one expects something new or groundbreaking. It is not a bad film and one could find worse ways to spend a couple of hours. Ultimately “Prince of Persia” is an early entry in the summer blockbuster competition, but will probably be forgotten by Labor Day.

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