A review – by Rob from Excuses and Half Truths
Let me recommend a film to you. It’s a stirring tale of high adventure in foreign lands. It concerns a Prince, falsely accused and cast into exile. He must fight to save his land from the evil plans of a wicked usurper. There is a beautiful and mysterious princess, a magical weapon, and a lot of running across rooftops. It’s a magnificent film, full of thrills, drama, romance and laughs.
It’s called The Thief Of Baghdad, and it was made in 1940 by the acclaimed film-making team of Powell and Pressburger. It is still acclaimed today as one of the classics of fantasy cinema.
Sadly, it’s not the film I’m here to discuss.
There’s a lot riding on Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest film, Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time. It was massively expensive to make, and spent over a year in post-production, burning out three editors in the process. It’s specifically designed to kick off a new series of movies, with the intention of becoming as successful as Bruckheimer’s last franchise, the Keith Richards Laughter Hour Pirates of the Caribbean.
Prince Of Persia has a lot going for it. The sets and costume design are of course stunning. Top-notch special effects? Check. Jaw-dropping stunt work? Check-o. Exotic locations? Checkster. A good-looking and talented cast? Checkity check check.
A tight, engaging script with sharp and witty dialogue?
Ah. Yes. About that.
The script, which I’ll come back to in a minute, was written by Boaz Yokin, and the double-team of Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard. These guys specialise in dance and romance movies, and low-budget horror. Not a great start.
The story credit for Prince of Persia goes to Jordan Mechner, the creator of the game that is the backbone of the movie. This should be more encouraging. The creative heart of the story has a clear investment in getting the story right. Right? But the strangely compressed plot feels like something that would be a heck of a lot more fun to play than it is to watch. There’s no sense of events flowing into each other. Rather, you get a bit of action, a goal is achieved or lost and boom, that’s it, end of level. I had no sense of the time frame in which the events of the movie were supposed to take place. A week? A couple of months? No idea. I started looking out for save points and power ups.
That’s an argument that you could point at most tentpole movies, but in Prince of Persia it’s a problem that’s thrown into sharp relief by the rotten dialogue and flawed story-telling. Everyone talks in clanging panto cliches or sixth-form poetry angst. There’s no snap, fizz or sparkle to the dialogue. It’s just sort of there, lading with a wet splat.
Worse, we’re treated like idiots. Frequently a caption tagging, say, the Holy City of Alamut, is immediately followed by a character saying “Behold! The Holy City of Alamut!” We are told again and again that Dastan is noble and brave, that the Hassansin are evil, that Tamina is beautiful. We know that. We can flippin’ SEE it. This handholding, this inability to tell a story in visual terms, utterly cripples the storytelling. We’re being told stuff all the time. When they’re not running about or waving swords at each other, the characters are reeling off great screeds of backstory, or reinforcing information that we’ve already been given. This is a classic case of “tell-don’t-show”, and it’s inexcusable in a big action movie like Prince Of Persia.
The trouble is, once the clunking dialogue breaks the spell, more and more of the basic gaps and flaws in the story start jumping up and down and waving at you. Why does Tamina help Dastan when surely she’d be better off letting him get imprisoned, and lift the Dagger with her pickpockety skillz as he’s dragged away? Why do we only find out that her journey to return the Dagger to it’s sanctuary is a suicide mission just before she’s about to put it back? Shouldn’t it be a bigger deal than a couple of throwaway lines? Why has the evil Nazim waited for so long to kill the King when he has clearly lusted after the throne since childhood? It’s all well and good saying that movies like this are not designed to be thought about too hard, but I’m sorry, I got bored. I had to find something to fill the time.
I’m starting to come across as pernickety and snark-driven, which isn’t the plan. But I’m bothered by the fact that I found Prince Of Persia so ham-fisted and painful. I love this sort of fantasy movie, and will argue the merits of the Harryhausen Sinbad movies and the under-rated Arabian Adventure till I’m blue in the face. I have, through a process of osmosis, seen and heard a lot of interviews with the cast and crew. They speak with great enthusiasm about the time, effort and love spent on bringing Prince Of Persia to the screen, about the tale of betrayal, family and redemption that is at it’s core. It sounds great.
There’s little sign of that film in the version that’s showing in cinemas. The money and time is all up there, sure. But the rest is lost in the confused and muddled storytelling and the frankly god-awful dialogue. The talent do a great job, (Jake G losing his shirt often enough to keep the core audience happy, Gemma A doing a good line in schoolmarmish disdain, Ben Kingsley makes a fine Ming the Merciless) but you can tell they’ve been handed a turd and asked to pretend it’s chocolate. There is no reason that a blockbuster cannot have wit and charm, and when you get that you end up with real treats like the first Iron Man or Pirates movie. But sadly, Prince Of Persia has none of that. There’s not even that much parkour in it. If I had access to the Sands Of Time, I’d use them to spin this movie right back to the drawing board.