Friday, May 28, 2010

Playing in the sand: ‘Prince of Persia’ is delicious summer movie fluff

First the United States invaded the Middle East, and now Hollywood has swooped in to finish the job: one day after the Sex and the City ladies landed in the Abu Dhabi doo-doo, setting off a dust storm of critical hate, PRINCE OF PERSIA: The Sands of Time seems primed to raise huffy hackles with a swords-and-sandals-style spectacular in ancient Iran. Based on a gulf-war-era video game, Prince of Persia stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular warrior who, scrambling up walls and vaulting across roofs amid camels, pomegranates and whirling dervishes, helps lead the search in wartime for, Praise Bruckheimer, weapons of not-quite-mass destruction.

As an example of the new pop-cultural crusades Prince of Persia is at once generically insulting and relatively innocuous. Set in the sixth century, the story involves Dastan (Mr. Gyllenhaal), the adopted son of King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), who plucked the wee boy out of the streets to raise the child alongside his royal spawn, Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell). The film, directed by Mike Newell and written by Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard, pays dutiful if cursory attention to the family angle. The father imparts wise words, and the brothers clasp hands and lock gazes, but the fraternal bonds are shredded after they invade a holy city and Dastan is ensnared in a palace intrigue.

Cut and chiseled, his pumped-up pectorals flashing, Mr. Gyllenhaal offers an updated spin on the mysterious Oriental lover of cinematic yesteryear. More butch than the silent-screen god Valentino (best known for playing the Sheik, an Arab rather than a Persian heartbreaker), Mr. Gyllenhaal instead follows — and runs and leaps — in the robustly muscular and acrobatic tradition of Douglas Fairbanks, the silent-film star whose Middle Eastern exploits were aggressively masculine. Granted, the resurrection of a sexpot Middle Eastern hero (even one played by a non-Persian actor) might not seem like progress. But given the strained relations between the United States and Iran, it’s a representation worth noting, particularly since Dastan’s worth is finally measured by his more peaceable actions.

This topical hook doesn’t sink very deep, admittedly; like a lot of action flicks, Prince of Persia exploits the headlines for familiar genre high jinks. Dastan hooks up with a pouty princess (an unfortunate Gemma Arterton) and engages in some funny business with a shady wise-cracking sheik (Alfred Molina, fortunately). Ben Kingsley shows up as Basil Rathbone, or rather Nizam, the king’s silky, suspicious brother. Shot in Morocco and in Pinewood Studios in Britain, the film is crammed with swirling sand, milling crowds, computer-generated cities and assorted narrative bits and pieces, some borrowed from the studio playbook (everyone speaks in a British accent, even, alas, Mr. Gyllenhaal), others recycled from the video game series by Jordan Mechner, who has a story credit.

The movie’s video game roots are most evident in the mechanized feel of many of the whiplash camera movements, which sharply zig and zag as if created by algorithms. Considering that he made the move from the art house to the blockbuster a few years ago with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Mr. Newell surely knew what he was getting himself into when he signed on with the producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Save for Michael Bay, who parted company with Mr. Bruckheimer a while ago, no director ever gets to put his own fingerprints on a Bruckheimer production. As usual, the talent in Prince of Persia is generally top notch — from the cinematographer John Seale to the parkour expert David Belle — but the ingredients have been masticated so heavily the results are mush.

For the most part this is perfectly painless mush. The movie is irrepressibly silly — what were you expecting? — but a few hours of Mr. Gyllenhaal jumping around in leather and fluttering his long lashes has its dumb-fun appeal, as does the sight of Mr. Molina planting a kiss on an ostrich in a big-screen spectacle that’s as much indebted to newfangled technologies as to old-fashioned Hollywood narrative strategies. If nothing else, it’s entertaining to think about how this mash-up of ancient Persian heroics and headline news might sit with the Iranian powers that be. In March 2009 a spokesman for the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, demanded an apology from Hollywood for “insults and accusations against the Iranian nation” over the last 30 years. Clearly, they had no idea they were about to be Bruckheimer-ed.

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