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The Strange Morality and Unsubtle Politics of Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time

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Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
2010
115 minutes
rated PG-13

Prince of Persia is a film so desperately chasing the shadows of its predecessors that it fails to be its own product. It feels like a Frankenstein-monster patchwork from the other period adventure franchises of the last decade, but it neglects the key ingredient: quality. Anyone can grill a steak, but having the right cut of meat is 80 percent of the battle. The film is a wildly expensive, genuinely epic adventure story with an overt political subtext and a couple rousing action scenes. But it is fatally miscast, badly written and it neglects to develop its characters beyond the call sheet. It's not a bad movie, but it fails to be anything approaching a good movie.

A token amount of plot -- Dastin (Jake Gyllenhaal) grew up as an adoptive brother to the heirs to the Persian throne. As a child, he was literally scooped off the street as a child by the king who was impressed with the young 'street rat's' bravery. However, apparent evidence of illicit arms sales has prompted calls for the invasion of Holy City of Alamut. After a successful invasion fails to yield the illegal weapons, treachery rears its head as Dastin is framed for the murder of his adoptive father, King Sharaman. Dastin is forced to flee Persia and Alamut's Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) ends up accompanying him. On the run, Dastin and Tamina must attempt to find the real murderer, as well as the real reason for an apparently fraudulent war. But what does it have to do with the mysterious 'dagger of time', which (by Grabthar's hammer) allows the wielder to go back in time just long enough to correct a single mistake?

It's no secret that the entire narrative of the film is a parable for the invasion/occupation of Iraq that started in 2003. Not only is an apparently innocent city invaded to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction, but the real villain eventually hires out bloodthirsty warriors to kill their way across the lands seeking a treasure and causing general chaos. The film desperately tries to have its cake and eat it too, making the good guys into unknowing participants in a war crime, and even having them stand up for due process and fair trials. But since we know right away what is afoot, we are unable to enjoy the first action sequence, an otherwise impressive display of real stunt work as Dastin uses parkour and stealth to unlock the gates and take the city with minimal bloodshed. If we are invested in the story, how can we enjoy the sight of our heroes basically committing murder and slaughtering innocent people?

Further moral confusion muddies a second-act chase scene. Again, the stunt work and choreography is wonderful, but we are basically expected to cheer as the 'innocent of patricide' Dastin kills about a dozen innocent soldiers whose only crime is attempting to apprehend the fleeing fugitive. To put this in perspective, how much would anyone have enjoyed The Fugitive if it contained extended sequences of Dr. Richard Kimble gunning down police officers and security guards as he fled in the attempt to find his wife's real murderer? Unlike the overtly amoral Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, this film attempts to position Dastin and Tamina as old-school heroes whose hearts are as pure as their intentions are noble. More importantly, even if Dastin is cleared of murdering the king, why are there no calls for his head for the dozen-or-so murders that he actually committed? That, ladies and gents, is why the A-Team never killed anyone.

Ok, so no one goes to Prince of Persia for its politics. For a glance at how the movie itself falters (you'll immediately feel guilty for every mean thing you ever said about Orlando Bloom or Brendan Fraser) read the rest of this piece at Mendelson's Memos.