“Defy the Future”
Directed by Mike Newell
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton and Ben Kingsley
The King of Persia (Ronald Pickup) adopts have-a-go street rat Dastan, who grows up to become the leader of a team of scrappy parkour commandos (Gyllenhaal). An attack on a holy city brings Dastan great honour, a shiny dagger and the captive princess Tamira (Arterton), but when the king is murdered and Dastan blamed, he is forced on the run with the princess.
Dastan is a trusted friend to his calmer oldest brother Tus (Richard Coyle) and rival to the equally headstrong Garsiv (Toby Kebble), the dynamic between the three mediated by the King’s trusted brother Nizam (Kingsley). He first suspects Tus of being the true assassin, but after an adventure in the desert with a justifiably murderous princess, a rowdy desert Sheik (Alfred Molina) and his band of ostrich race fixers – including honourable knife expert Seso (Steve Toussaint) he realises that it is Nizam who is to blame.
Tired of playing second fiddle, Nizam wants to steal the Dagger of Time from Dastan in order to unwind time and change his own actions to become King in his brother’s place. Unfortunately, releasing the Sands of Time from their Sandglass to do so could destroy the world.
What’s wrong with it?
It’s just so… white. There’s not an Iranian in the piece; not even an Israeli passing for generic Middle Eastern. Dastan is American, the Princess and other Princes are English and the Sheik is an Anglo-Spanish-Italian. The nearest there is to an actual Persian is Yorkshire’s favourite half-Kenyan Gujarati Muslim, Ben Kingsley (which is not very close at all.) I suppose we ought to be grateful that none of them are blonde, and it does at least avoid the cliche of having everyone swear colourful oaths ‘by the beard of the prophet’ or what have you (presumably something faux Parsi rather than faux Muslim.)
This is a strictly 1950s Hollywood Persia, without the excuse of being made in the 1950s when people didn’t know any better. It’s generic dusty exotica, with very little cultural awareness.
The film is also a ridiculous mess of set pieces. The Prince springs and leaps around the perfectly spaced boxes and beams of assorted market places and gatehouses. The major Hassansin, each with their own unlikely weaponry, are so obviously video game mini-bosses they practically have controller buttons flashing above their heads before they get taken down.
Speaking of the Hassansin… Well, first up, the Dagger is kept in the holy city of Alamut, which really ought to be the Hassansin’s base of operation, as they are clearly the Assassins with their fanatical zeal and marijuana huffing. As it is, they appear to spend all their time when not on a mission sparring viciously in a small room off Nizam’s quarters, presumably so that he can open a door and have ninjas training behind it if he feels the need, and a film in 2010 really shouldn’t be using a trope that was mocked in Wayne’s World.
The plot borrows from three computer games, and as such struggles to fit everything in coherently within the two hour run time.
What’s right with it?
The action set pieces are pretty slickly done.
The cast may be very white, but they are all decent actors and the dialogue is never completely terrible.
Alfred Molina as the desert Del Boy is pretty hilarious, and the Sheik’s bond with his protector Seso is actually kind of moving.
How bad is it really?
As a film, Prince of Persia is a pretty entertaining swashbuckler. Most of its problems are things that are only really troubling on further consideration, in particular the use of this Arabian Nights setting with white actors in the twenty-first century.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Of all the Hassansin fights, by far the best is the throwing knife duel between Seso and the Spike Hassansin, which plays out much like a well-executed wild west shootout, the fighters dodging between pillars in a hail of sharp metal things.
It’s capped off after the two kill each other with Sheik Amar’s moment of pathos.
What’s up with…?
- The holy city of Alamut? Alamut was a den of murderers, or at best a regular city. I don’t think anyone has ever accused it of being holy.
- The Hassansin’s bizarre signature waprons? One uses a huge axe, one a pair of claw-tipped steel whips, one an assortment of spikes and their leader fights with snakes.
- Bis? Dastan’s number two guy just… vanishes for most of the movie. Maybe he got killed and I missed it, but as he was Dastan’s childhood buddy you’d think it would merit a moment.
- The emergency destruct mechanism for the Dagger? Why isn’t the Dagger kept at the temple with the destruct option, rather than the city with the Sandglass? Why hasn’t one of the many protectors of the Dagger stabbed the rock on her ninetieth birthday instead of handing the Dagger on?
- The gods? The Sands represent the wrath of the gods, and Tus calls the story ‘heathen blasphemy’. What religions are these people following? I think they’re supposed to be Zoroastrian or something, but… who knows?
Production values – This is a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Disney film, so it’s shiny as hell. It’s major flaw in terms of look is that the final showdown on the Sandglass is so full of dazzling effects that it’s a bugger to see what’s actually happening with the people. 6
Dialogue and performances – Gyllenhaal is perhaps a little too sombre and hangdog as Dastan, but overall the quality of the performances is good and the dialogue is okay. 8
Plot and execution – The plot is kind of confused, as a result of trying to cram an awful lot into the time slot. I am also adding points here for the failure to cast anyone even a little bit Persian. 15
Randomness – The Hassansin are the primary offence here, with their ludicrous weapons, drug-fueled super-tracking abilities and apparent willingness to just spend their days training in case Nizam needs to look badass. There is also the ostrich racing. 12
Waste of potential – The film would have been improved by making some effort with the background theology (instead of just hoping no-one would notice), casting someone of the right cultural and ethnic background, or just limiting the plot elements to suit the running time. Of course, even as it was it’s still the highest grossing game adaptation of all time. Take that Uwe Boll. 12