Monday, June 21, 2010

Prince of Persia

Thanks to my friend Peter Andrews for this ever-so-slightly scurrilous review.

Having played most of the ‘PoP’ (as the cool kids say) games since the sword-swinging, side-scrolling days of the originals, it is impossible to overstate how much the intellectual property this film is based on does exactly as it says on the tin.

The games have all been about a prince. From Persia.

In the original games, pulling on the baggy, satin trousers of our rotascoped hero, the player would move from the left of the screen to the right, slashing goons and jumping from platform to platform in a Sultan’s palace.

Then the new millennium brought a relaunch: this time with freerunning, time travel, zombies and a sultry belly dancer/priestess elegantly (although ethnically inaccurately) voiced by Monica Belucci.

The second game added a dominatrix-time-enforcer-type for some reason. At that point, I must admit, I lost track of the plot and focused more on the metal bodice.

By the third game – like the third Spiderman film – our hero started listening to My Chemical Romance and raiding his sister’s makeup cabinet, finding that applying liquid eyeliner is – like being a tortured soul in an uncaring world - just so hard.

This film, like the games, is very literal in its approach. Subtle exposition is completely unknown in the entire two and a quarter hours of screen time - it prefers to trample you with explanations like a caravan of camels.

The first time the prince uses the magic sand in his magic dagger to travel back in time – beautifully shown by a bewildered Jake Gyllenhaal, partly rendered in glowing CGI sand, watching events being rewound around him until eventually rejoining with his past self, armed with a minute’s worth of hindsight – he explains that “It is a magic dagger. It lets you travel back in time. But only the wielder knows anything about it”.

Thanks, Mike Newell, I don’t think I would have understood from the title that it is a film about a prince, from Persia, who has sand, that lets him travel in time.

The dialogue for the three main characters is all along these lines, where they will explain exactly how they are feeling and why.

If feels as if there was a major problem with the formatting of the script – where what we see are the actors merely reading out the motivational notes as stilted dialogue, while wondering to themselves why the stage directions sounded so poetic by comparison. It would not surprise me in the least if, when the extended edition is inevitably released on DVD, we get a deleted scene where the characters will literally read out the fight choreography in dull monotone.

It makes any chemistry or mystery between the two leads (Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton) impossible and the entire romance subplot seems incredibly forced. By the end of the film, the entire audience was cringing as the couple got to the inevitable, passionless kiss. It would have been far less awkward if Jake Gyllenhaal’s opposite number was his sister.

(Yes, 4th-wall-breaking incest would have been preferable to watching these two lock lips. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I’d like to think I’m not the only one who felt like that.)

It’s not just the heroes that are dire. The true villain of the piece is only revealed two-thirds through the film, but – Shyamalan this is not – as throughout he looks like Ming the Merciless and acts like a pantomime Machiavelli, he relies on the tragic mental retardation of every single major character to mask his true intentions, rather than any effort of the production team to deceive the audience.

However, none of this is to say that the film is without its merits. In fact, one of its greatest merits is the fucking ridiculous dialogue.

Firstly, if the main characters had been able to cobble together something vaguely resembling subtlety or wit, it will have spoiled the laughter the film can generate. There were intentionally comedic moments in this film, but I have never been to a cinema showing where there was as much spontaneous laughter at the serious moments as there were at the jokes. Initially, there was a groan from somewhere at the back of the theatre, followed by the muted slap of a dozen hands face-palming in unison. Then, silence. Eventually, one lone person would chortle, which would make its way in a Mexican wave of mirth across the entire audience until everyone was in hysterics.

Second in the “fucking ridiculous dialogue” category was the minor character played by Alfred Molina. The character was initially described as a fearsome bandit, inhabiting the depths of the desert and preying on dehydrated travellers. But, when he appears as a slightly insane Arabian Del-Boy, the character instantly becomes the favourite. Every line of dialogue was delivered with delightful gusto; and presented all of the genuinely good, and intentionally funny lines. The film is worth it just for his description of ostriches and repeating catchphrases relating to his Sumerian sidekick.

However, the primary merit of the film - true to the Summer Blockbuster category - is the action. The action scenes are beautifully choreographed, with exactly the right blend of edge-of-seat danger, comic relief and acrobatic Parkour across a gorgeous, fantastical Arabian city.

The central element of the videogame series is that the prince relies less on brute strength and more on his natural agility and magic time-travelling dagger, which is shown with great aplomb here by Gyllenhaal. It turns out, he doesn’t have to be a mentally traumatised soldier or mentally traumatised teenager, but can be a fairly convincing action hero too.

In general, the film is both destroyed utterly and elevated massively by having an awful script. It does have good action, decent cinematography, and great comedy.

If the dialogue had been only slightly better, the film would have easily been in the running for this year’s worst film. If it had a blend of in-your-face action and subtlety, it would have been divorced from the source material fairly completely, but would have had everything a big-budget action film could wish for and more.

As it stands, however, it is a very enjoyable film, with the camp the cringeworthy dialogue brings actually acting in its favour most of the time and much more welcome than the utter seriousness of other epic films this year *cough* ‘Robin Hood’ *cough*.


The Film Connoisseur said...

Im curious for this one, but all the negative reviews hold me back. Ill eventually catch it on dvd, but judging by the review, it sounds like a dumb/fun watch.

Neil Fulwood said...

I'm in two minds whether to see it on the big screen (after all the visuals, production design and action scenes seem to be all the film has to offer) or wait till it's on DVD and add it to the rental queue.