I don’t mean to sound like a grumpy jerk this year. I swear to god I like movies. In fact, I like many movies, and I like them often.
So why is Hollywood disappointing me so regularly this year?
Maybe I’ve just reached a saturation point. After all, “Prince Of Persia” is technically well-produced, and Jake Gyllenhaal makes a perfectly amiable lead as Prince Dastan, a street urchin who was adopted into the royal family of Persia after the King saw a demonstration of his courage as a child. Gemma Arterton certainly plays the eye candy role with all the “oh, I’m so sassy” energy that is required of her. Ben Kingsley skulks about looking all skulky, which is what he was hired to do. Alfred Molina satisfies the “colorful supporting comedy role” requirement with all the skill you’d expect. John Seale’s photography is lush and colorful, and the FX are top-notch, as is the stunt work which does a nice job of actually suggesting the physicality of the game.
So what’s missing? Why is it that at the end of the film, I walked away feeling like I just saw a big trailer with no movie attached? Why, when all the elements are in place, does “Prince Of Persia” feel like a big fat miss?
For one thing, the plot is exactly the sort of plot you’re used to with this type of film, and that’s a problem. It is literally impossible to be surprised by this particular story form at this point. “Reluctant hero drawn into adventure chases magical item around for two hours. Much talk of destiny and fate. Close calls. Derring-do. Oh, what a surprise, it’s his destiny to trigger the big CGI event that wraps up the story. Bad guy confrontation. Kiss the annoying-girl-who-he-suddenly-loves. The end.” All that changes at this point is what the magic whatsit is that these generic heroes and villains chase around. Here, it’s a knife that contains the “sands of time,” which have something to do with a sandstorm version of the Noah’s Ark story, and the bad guy wants it so he can undo an act of kindness in his childhood, making himself King in the process, while the good guys want it because… well, I guess because they’re good guys, and because it is their “destiny.” That word gets a fairly liberal workout in the film, which wears on me. How about a hero who becomes a hero simply because it’s the right thing to do and they have character, rather than yet another movie about a hero and his “destiny.” I’m tired of the monomyth dominating pop culture, and it’s pointless. That story has been told so many times that it’s almost mechanical at this point. You watch something like this unfold, and you know exactly how the beats are going to play out. Only the details change.
It’s fairly obvious that Jerry Bruckheimer, mega-producer, is chasing his own “Pirates Of The Caribbean” success here, and he may succeed to some degree, but Gyllenhaal is no Johnny Depp, and Prince Dastan is no Captain Jack Sparrow. This film is so square it’s cube, almost defiantly square. The leads are both so squeaky clean that you know upfront there is no danger of any actual danger. There’s not going to be any genuine darkness to worry about or anything too genuinely eccentric. Instead, this is all played surface. Light. We hear at one point about a vicious band of murdering slaves, escaped from their masters and bloodthirsty in their freedom now, and when we meet them, the movie immediately defangs them by explaining that everything we heard is just a lie to keep people away. When we’re introduced to the Hassansans, this movie’s version of the Hashishians of legend, they are meant to be terrifying super-ninjas who can turn into snakes and whirling sand dervishes. And even they are turned into fairly toothless threats right away. Even though this film was based on a video game instead of a theme park, Disney’s made sure to turn it into a film that has all the dramatic stakes of “It’s A Small World.” Gemma Arterton is a pretty girl, and when I reviewed “The Disappearance Of Alice Creed,” I had some nice things to say about her work there. Truth is, though, the more I see of her, especially in big giant event films like this, the less sold I am on her as a screen presence. I think she’s vanilla on vanilla. It’s weird enough seeing Jake Gyllenhaal’s baby face on this gorilla body that the trainers built for him for this movie, but he needed someone who actually brought some heat to the film as a sparring partner, not someone who can do an imitation of heat without any real flame at all. Arterton knows what her job is here, and she gives it all the energy she can muster. But chemistry is one of those things you can’t fake, and there’s nothing captivating about the two of them together onscreen.
Mike Newell might also be a major culprit here. He is a professional in every way, and there’s nothing wrong with the filmmaking here. This isn’t a case of, say, Renny Harlin where I think a director is technically incompetent. Newell gives the film a lovely sheen and a confident pace and he shoots the action in a very matter-of-fact way that is refreshing. But I don’t get the feeling this is a movie that Newell would actually ever watch unless he were directing it, and because of that, it never feels like it has a pulse. And maybe that’s what all of my issues with the film boil down to… pulse. Just because you build a body out of dead parts, it doesn’t mean you’re ever going to get it to stand up and walk around on its own. At best, you’ll get a simulation of something, a fake that looks right but feels wrong. “Prince Of Persia” works as mindless, forgettable, sit-in-the-air-conditioning entertainment, but it’s not built to last, and it offers nothing lasting to an audience. The best you can hope for is a few laughs and a few moments of “That was sort of vaguely exciting.” And considering the size of this movie and the hopes Disney has for it, that hardly seems like enough.
“Prince Of Persia” opens everywhere May 28.
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