REVIEW: Gyllenhaal, Prince of Persia Delivers Throwback Movie Thrills

Movieline Score: 8

Prince of Persia is a maybe-not-so-accurate historical epic based on a video game -- and that's the reason to see it, not stay away from it. By now everyone has seen the pictures of an impossibly buff and buffed Jake Gyllenhaal -- his skin looks as if it's been polished with centuries' worth of walnut oil -- as an ancient Persian warrior. We've all laughed derisively at his brooding stare and anachronistic rock-star tresses. But Gyllenhaal gets the last laugh in Prince of Persia: He's having a great time, he knows he looks awesome and he gets to ride horses. Plus, in the end his character gets the girl, a stunner of a princess named Tamina (though I immediately forgot her name and could henceforth think of her only as Princess Hummina Hummina). If you think you're above Prince of Persia -- and until I saw it, I certainly did -- then it's time to come off your not-so-high horse.

Gyllenhaal's character is Dastan -- which some of the actors pronounce "Desitin," conjuring some unusual imagery for an action hero, but never mind -- and he's not really a prince. As an orphan boy, he was rescued from the streets by the then-king of Persia, Sharaman (played by the British actor Ronald Pickup), who was impressed by the kid's courage and pluck. King Sharaman raises Dastan as his own, along with his two sons (played by Richard Coyle and Toby Kebbel, also British actors). Meanwhile, Sharaman's brother, Nizam (Ben Kingsley, yet another British actor, in case you don't see the pattern emerging here), lurks ominously at the sidelines, wearing lots of eyeliner. A plot of deceit and intrigue unfolds, all stemming from Sharaman's invasion of a peaceful nearby country: The princess of that country, the aforementioned Tamina, is played by Gemma Arterton (a British actress recently seen in another princessy role in Clash of the Titans). When she and Dastan meet, it is, of course, love at first sight, despite the fact that he and his brothers have just bullied their way into her poor, beleaguered country.

The story, as you can surmise, is pure hokum. But what hokum! Prince of Persia acknowledges its absurdity and runs with it, turning a possible liability into a crazy brand of Saturday-matinee majesty. The director is Mike Newell, the filmmaker behind, among other things, Donnie Brasco and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one of the better movies of that franchise. Newell is part of an increasingly rare breed: A filmmaker working in the mainstream who knows what he's doing. Even when his movies aren't perfect, they at least have a definite vision, and you never get the sense he's dumbing stuff down to make sure the audience gets it.

Prince of Persia has lots of action, and for the most part Newell handles it deftly. While there's clearly some CGI afoot, he also showcases honest-to-God stuntwork -- characters leap from one rooftop to another, or swing, Douglas Fairbanks-style, from lengths of rope. (There's also an ostrich race presided over by a cackling Alfred Molina, who shows up for some comic relief.) Even Newell's use of a mostly British cast is an affectionate nod to the days when classically trained (or just plain good) actors -- James Mason, Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer -- would regularly show up in historical epics. I'm afraid people will giggle when they first hear Gyllenhaal's affected English accent. But I suspect that's Gyllenhaal's way of fitting in with his fellow actors and with this tradition. He doesn't want to be left out of this club, and why should he? His performance is straightforward and refreshingly unsubtle; he seems to be having a blast, strutting and smoldering his way through the sands of time.

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  • Sandy says:

    You sound like you work for Disney by practically begging people to see this movie. Other reviews I have read have not been good. One reviewer even stated that gyllenhaal's abs look computer generated. Ouch.

  • The Winchester says:

    See Prince of Persia: Sands of Time! It makes The Mummy Returns look like The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor!

  • Emotionally Retarded says:

    Wow, Sandy, so Stephanie needs to stick strictly with the critical consensus?

  • TurdBlossom says:

    Will check POP in the theatre now(was humming and hawing about seeing it). If nothing else, I can always just spend the time drooling over Jakey-poo's body. Yowza.

  • sweetbiscuit says:

    I love this kind of swashbuckling thing, if the tone is right. I'm in.

  • Oh, Jake is toned all right.

  • Chris says:

    Thank you, Stephanie. Thanks to your review being much the highest scorer on Metacritic, I now know to avoid this movie like the plague. According to most of the other reviews, the movie is forgettably formulaic, and given your lousy track record, I have no reason to doubt the consensus this time around.
    Why is it you feel the need to constantly adulate performers merely for looking pretty and being innocuously charming (while simultaneously denouncing acting that aims for something more than that)? Is this all we expect of stars now? Could you be any more predictable in your praise? The moment I saw you'd given this movie a rave review, I knew exactly what sort of plaudits you'd sprinkle over hotties Jake and Gemma - almost word-for-word what you say about EVERY young performer you approve of. Even the specifics of your praise always break down the same way along gender lines: young or youngish guys always get a thumbs-up for being dashing and looking like they're having fun or "having a blast," girls always get the thumbs-up for their bone structure: you always talk about some (usually imaginary) striking idiosyncrasy in their pulchritude: "Arterton isn’t just a blandly pretty face. There’s something bold and sensuous about her...." You could insert the name of any actress here who's ever gotten the Zacharek Seal of Approval, from Debra Winger or Michelle Pfeiffer in their youth, to Gwyneth Paltrow or Natalie Portman or Charlotte Gainsbourg today... the praise is always some variation of the above sentiment about Arterton.
    I notice this movie was directed by Mike Newell. Well, I guess Newell, like anyone else, needs box office hits, and all the money and opportunities that come with them. In the 80s, Newell directed a movie called THE GOOD FATHER, quite a good film which received deservedly good reviews from most critics, but a vicious pan from Pauline Kael, who also trashed in laughably unconvincing terms the brilliant lead performance by Anthony Hopkins (including deriding all the reviewers who claimed, correctly, that he was superb).
    Here's a challenge for Stephanie. I dare you to rent that DVD and review it and not simply repeat the empty complaints of Pauline Kael.
    If PRINCE OF PERSIA (directed by Mike Newell) is so wonderful, do you think THE GOOD FATHER is also a good movie? If so why, and if not why not? Do you think Anthony Hopkins gave a greater, more praiseworthy performance than Jake Gyllenhaal or Gemma Arterton? If Gyllenhaal gets such high marks from you under Newell's direction, will Hopkins as well? (In particular, I want to know your opinion of Hopkins' handling of his breakdown scene opposite Joanne Whalley, where he tearfully confesses his feelings about his young son....) Or maybe you can't bring yourself to admit that Kael was wrong about something, and that her assessment of Hopkins' acting was embarrassingly wide of the mark.

  • laflemm says:

    I had no intention of seeing this movie, but given this review, I'll have to give it a try. As for Stephanie Zacharek always reviewing movies based on looks, I'm wondering if the person who said this has ever read her reviews, which are the most thoughtful and original I've ever read. I love the notion too that disagreeing with the general consensus is evidence of her lack of taste. Might it be the courage of her convictions perhaps? Just a thought.

  • Chris says:

    "As for Stephanie Zacharek always reviewing movies based on looks, I'm wondering if the person who said this has ever read her reviews, which are the most thoughtful and original I've ever read."
    Then you obviously haven't read much of anything of importance in your life, and need to start broadening your limited horizons. "Original" is demonstrably the last thing Zacharek's reviews are, since a good 90 percent (at least) of her output is an uninspired copy of Pauline Kael's criticism. It is an undeniable fact that Zacharek's tastes and opinions are deeply derivative of Kael's. If you're not aware of that fact, that doesn't make it any less of a fact.

  • Chris says:

    Zacharek's lame-ass defenders need to start cutting the crap. Reality check for you all: just because Zacharek departs from the Gospel According to Entertainment Tonight, doesn't mean she has "the courage of her convictions." She HAS no convictions of her own: she only has Pauline Kael's convictions. I've come to see that most of the people who follow her and admire have no real knowledge of film criticism in general, and probably have never read more than a smattering of Kael. If you'd actually worked your way through Kael's oeuvre, you wouldn't still be impressed with Zacharek, since Zacharek is like an obedient lapdog who repeats, repeats, repeats, without considering whether Kael was correct or not, whatever Kael thought about anything at all to do with film. Don't try to refute me till you've actually familiarized yourself with the facts concerning Zacharek's track record as a critic.
    (I will say Zacharek is slightly better than her husband, Charles Taylor, who is an even more fanatically Kael-Bot - the equivalent for movie reviewers of Ayn Rand's brainwashed Randroids).

  • Laflemm says:

    "It is an undeniable fact that Zacharek's tastes and opinions are deeply derivative of Kael's. If you're not aware of that fact, that doesn't make it any less of a fact."
    This is funny, You need to check some high school textbook about the difference between fact and opinion.
    You might want to look up "demonstrably" too while you are at it.

  • Chris says:

    The only "funny" thing about it is your inability to rebut my criticisms with anything other than ostrich-like denial. Unless you've read both Kael and Zacharek carefully and extensively, not cursorily, you simply don't know what you're talking about when you praise her as a great writer. What you believe to be "her" skills as a writer is nothing but a retread of Kael, who did it better. Zacharek's development as a writer has been hampered by her overreliance on Kael - and it's time someone pointed this out. Enough with the endless fawning (by ignorant readers) over an unoriginal and imperceptive reviewer. A certain level of open-mindedness is a pre-condition for good criticism - and Zacharek simply isn't open-minded enough, because she takes everything Kael ever said as gospel.
    But yours, and the other lame defenses of Zacharek, certainly reveal what sort of mindset Zacharek attracts.

  • I personally thought this film was very good, Its easy to presume these kinds of films will be garbage as other game to film ideas have been disasters. I gave this a try mainly because of Ben Kingsley. I'm glad I did. The dialogue is fairly flat but the characters are superb the acting is pretty good Ben is fantastic as per usual. And persia and its surroundings look amazing. It also comes with a good plot! Well worth a watch! 7/10

  • Attorney says:

    I'm pretty much on the same page as you, Roosevelt. I was hesitant, but decided to give it a try, and I was pleasantly surprised. Like you said, the dialogue could have used a bit more work, but all in all, not a bad film. I'd give it a 7 as well.

  • James says:

    Okey finally got this sucker under my belt. It has been on the to see list forever, and its exactly what I expected from a movie based on a video game.
    They usually have to make up so much story that it usually end up with a half descent fail..
    And so as well in this case.

  • Vince says:

    I can't believe you actually liked this movie! The only one I enjoyed was Transformers, the rest, in my opinion, including all three Spidermans, was weak and plain boring...

  • mike says:

    This movie clearly aims at kids, and teens. It also caters to hard-core video gamers who love Prince of Persia game franchise. There are a lot of jumping just like in the games.
    There are many fighting scenes. They look okay. The scenes are colorful and beautiful. The special effects look riveting. For example, the snake scene looks very real.
    Jake Gyllenhaal's acting is fun and engaging. Gemma Arterton's acting is stiff. The time-shifting twist keeps the movie interesting till the end. If you're looking for characters' depth here, you'll be disappointed.
    The ostrich racing scene looks original to me. I've never seen something like that before.
    This movie reminds me of Scorpion King. As a family movie, it's absolutely worth watching once.