Prince of Persia is a blatant cheat. The moment a dagger that can reverse time is introduced there is little doubt that no matter what happens, no matter who dies, it will all be reversed and everyone will be fine. Action movies often throw gratuitous action scenes at us assuming the very act of sword or gun fighting will be enough to capture the audience’s attention. They often don’t bother developing characters or a coherent plot hoping to get by on action alone. While that might work sometimes (though rarely), it certainly doesn’t work here because everything feels perfunctory as we sit waiting for the dagger to make it all right.
There is so much opportunity for this movie to be interesting but director Mike Newell avoids them like the plague in favor of more pointless fighting. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the third prince of the Persian Empire, but he was an orphan and adopted by the King from the streets. Well right there is something interesting. Instead of spending any time considering what it would have been like for a poor orphan boy to suddenly find himself a prince, Newell jumps ahead to the boy now grown up into hunky Gyllenhaal fighting in a boxing match of sorts (because there won’t be enough fighting in the rest of the movie it would have been silly for him to be doing anything else that might actually develop character.) Prince Dastan is integrated and accepted by his father and two brothers. We don’t have to consider the challenge his presence would have meant to them, the brothers especially.
The story, such as it is, follows Dastan as he tries to prove that he didn’t murder his father after a successful invasion of a holy city. He is initially aided by the Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) of the city that Dastan and his brothers invaded. She does not help Dastan because of his hotness, but because he has possession of the time reversing dagger mentioned above, acquired during the plundering of the city. She is on a mission to get it back. Together they travel across the deserts of Persia (actually Morocco) getting into all kinds of scrapes and, in the process, uncovering a nefarious plot to turn back time further than the dagger allows thus throwing the entire world into peril.
There are so many logical gaps in the story it’s hard to even take it seriously as popcorn fun. If, as Tamina says, it is her calling to protect the dagger, why would she give it to someone else to hide? And if the King is so outraged that his sons invaded a holy city, why would he, only a couple scenes later, accept with pleasure a gift plundered from the same city? The most boneheaded inconsistency involves who Dastan thinks he can trust. At a certain point in the film he believes one family member framed him, but thinks another is the only one he can trust. But just the day before he thought he could trust everyone in his family, so why would he be sure he could trust anyone? Other fun action movies have logical holes in them, but when the characters act intelligently and the plot works, we tend to be more forgiving of those holes. Could the bus in Speed really have made that jump over the gap in the freeway overpass? Of course not, but who cared? The rest of the movie was so fun and entertaining that we overlooked it. It’s harder to overlook silliness in movies with weak characters and clunky plots.
Jake Gyllenhaal is solid as Prince Dastan and shows he can handle the lead in an action movie fairly well. He isn’t a great actor but he’s a good one. His performance is adequate for this movie, but since we know he is capable of a more, it’s a letdown. His costar, Gemma Arterton, however, is so lifeless that he stumbles when trying to perform opposite of her. A great actor can save mediocre performances (much like Heath Ledger did for Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain). But Arterton’s empty eyes and lackluster delivery are just too much for the competent actor that Gyllenhaal is. I hope that he will grow as an actor over time because I enjoy watching him on screen, but if he continues making movies like this I don’t see how that will be possible.
Many people have been complaining about the lack of Persian or Middle Eastern actors in the movie. The ethnic makeup of the cast doesn’t bother me, after all actors are meant to play parts foreign to them. I tend to get uncomfortable when they darken their features or alter their appearance to look more “ethnic,” but even that is losing some of its offensiveness as the objectionable memories of minstrelsy and blackface have receded. We don’t see the same sort of mocking and offensive portrayals of other races, like many of the African American characters in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation or Mickey Rooney’s distasteful turn as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Increasingly actors can play other ethnicities without the stigma of racial denigration. I hope it is because we have learned that we need to respect other races, but it’s probably because Jake Gyllenhaal is more bankable than the biggest star in Iran.
The fine job by Gyllenhaal and some good supporting performances by Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina can’t save this perfunctory story from being anything more than a mindless and sloppy action picture.