Prince of Persia: A Prince Among Paupers

A silly-smart adventure film gives the summer blockbuster season a belated jump start

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Three early blockbusters, three semi-disappointments. Iron Man 2 couldn't channel the Mensa brio of its predecessor; the Russell Crowe–Ridley Scott Robin Hood was a long slog through Nottingham; and Shrek Forever After — sorry, we've already forgotten what was wrong with that one. After a few summers of vigorous large-scale adventures in which Hollywood showed why the whole world pays to see its pictures, the tent-pole movies of May 2010 came down with a collective case of the blahs. Their makers must have somehow figured that the mass audience, which expects grand entertainment this time of year, would settle for wan retreads. Could this be the summer when big movies run out of steam, scope and pizzazz?

Not if Jerry Bruckheimer has his say. The multimedia overlord — who keeps the Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure film franchises, as well as TV's CSI and The Amazing Race, in his stable — can churn out junk like any other producer. But sometimes Bruckheimer finds a smart idea and lets his creative types run with it. The first Pirates, in 2003, was a zesty surprise. His new Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time — based on Jordan Mechner's Ubisoft video-game trilogy, scripted by Boaz Yakin and Doug Miro and directed by Mike Newell — is another. Just as the swashbuckling heroes of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn sagas did, Persia's Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives in the nick of time to save the industry's imperiled faith in May megamovies.

A street urchin adopted by good King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), Dastan matures into a pumped-up warrior who leads the sacking of a Persian city at the goading of the king's brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley). There he tangles with the haughty Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) and discovers a magic dagger containing the sands of time, which allow him to remake history. He's aided in his exploits by Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina), an ostrich-race promoter who calls himself "a slightly disheveled entrepreneur." The movie boasts a supercool scaling of the Persian ramparts, some fancy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — esque stunts and lots of deadly creatures. When Dastan and Tamina flee for their lives into the desert, they find killer snakes on the plain.

Back in 1996, Bruckheimer turned brooding indie-film star Nicolas Cage into a mass-medium action figure with The Rock. He tries the same here with Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac), who acquired a manlier physique and truly fabulous hair and comes off like Persia's first surfer; his sentences seem to end with an implied "dude." Arterton, the flavor of the summer in epic heroines (Clash of the Titans, Tamara Drewe), makes for a stolid princess, but that just allows more scene-stealing room for Molina, who exudes some of the subversive, off-kilter roguishness that Johnny Depp brought to Pirates.

Persia — Wait, Isn't That Iran?
All this muscular silliness is about as politically correct as the song in Disney's Aladdin that called Arabia a place "where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face/ It's barbaric, but hey, it's home." Iranian Americans have complained that no one in the huge cast is ethnically Persian, a protest that the Islamic Republic of Iran may soon echo. And Stephen Colbert, noting some facial similarities between the film's star and a certain prominent Iranian, fulminated that "once again, Hollywood is giving aid and comfort to our enemies, by glamorizing the life story of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmajakegyllenhaalijad."

In fact, Prince of Persia gives political aid and comfort only to those who opposed the U.S. occupation of Iraq. King Sharaman's raid is based on intelligence from Nizam indicating that the country harbors a weapon of mass destruction (the dagger with its time-traveling sands). It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to see Nizam as a Snidely Whiplash version of Dick Cheney and the sands of time as a wish by filmmakers — and perhaps Cheney's old colleagues — that we could turn on the Wayback Machine and undo the damage the 2003 invasion caused the U.S. and Iraq. Prince is thus Hollywood's latest attempt, after Green Zone, to find a fantasy solution to a real, tragic dilemma.

One difference between this and the Matt Damon film is that nobody need look for subtext in Prince of Persia; its surface is shiny enough to entrance the young and divert their elders. It scampers through the history of Hollywood adventure, filching every Saturday-matinee touchstone, from Indiana Jones to Chuck Jones' 1957 cartoon Ali Baba Bunny, in which Bugs and Daffy are tempted by riches and menaced by Arabian thugs.

No masterpiece, Persia is fun for exactly as long as it takes to sit through it. The whole thing is so engaging, in the smart-mindless way of Hollywood blockbusters, that one expects a sequel in a few years. Then we'll be able to complain that they just don't make summer movies the way they did back in 2010.