The 'Prince of Persia' Director's Past Life


20th Century Fox

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time takes the nation by enveloping digital sandstorm today. I haven't seen the movie, but I have seen the trailer, and I'm guessing that was more than enough. It doesn't bode well for a movie with a whole lot of shimmery CGI that the only real let-me-see-that-again part of the preview comes at the end, when the name of the director, Mike Newell, flashes by at the bottom of the screen.

Newell, a 68-year-old Brit, directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, so his involvement with Prince of Persia is not quite a surprise on par with playwright and In the Company of Men director Neil LaBute helming this year's Death at a Funeral retread. But prior to his involvement in astronomically expensive tentpole projects, Newell was probably best known for 1994's Four Weddings and a Funeral. Prince of Persia seems to have a fair amount of comic-relief banter between its stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton, and exclusively British accents across the board, but it still seems an exceedingly odd marriage of director and material.

Perhaps seeking some respite from the deafening screeches of longtime collaborator Michael Bay's demolition derbies, producer Jerry Bruckheimer does have a history of employing directors who broke in with gritty character-driven dramas. In perhaps his most counterintuitive hire, Bruckheimer tapped Training Day director Antoine Fuqua to make King Arthur (2004). Gore Verbinski, who has helmed all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies for the producer, had a faux-quirky, but proudly foulmouthed Julia Roberts-Brad Pitt vehicle (The Mexican) on his resume before joining the franchise. Verbinski also directed (The Weather Man, a terrific movie starring Nicolas Cage as a weatherman in crisis, as a one-for-me project between the first and second Pirates behemoths.

Newell doesn't yet seem to have forsaken his career as a director of respectable, if somewhat dull, '90s-heyday-of-Miramax-type productions—2007's coolly received Love in the Time of Cholera more or less fit that bill—but he also has established himself as an event-film specialist. Kind of a shame, because that leaves little room for films like two of his best, Donnie Brasco (1997) and Pushing Tin (1999), which rest somewhere in between unabashed Oscar bait and PG-13 effects mayhem. Those films are Hollywood product, but they're both distinctive, downbeat character studies with protagonists whose developing personal allegiances or rivalries threaten to interfere with their high-stakes professional responsibilities.

The title character of Donnie Brasco, played by Johnny Depp, is an undercover cop brought into the organized-crime fold by Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a low-level made man with a top-level swagger. As Donnie infiltrates further into mob operations, the two develop a strong bond. The script runs through the usual plainclothes-policeman I'm-becoming-one-of-them dilemmas, and Pacino's rueful "30 years I'm busting my hump!" moments can verge on schmaltz, but the leads' interplay is riveting. Donnie Brasco has been enshrined as a second-tier mob classic, but if you're a Netflix subscriber and you haven't seen it, it's currently available to "watch instantly."

Pushing Tin is a much worse film by any measure, but it is unpredictable enough to remain interesting throughout, and it's a good showcase for John Cusack (before he was really phoning in the charming-hangdog thing). Watching the film now makes for a somewhat uncanny experience that has little to do with the movie itself and more to do with how much the world has changed over the last decade-and-change. For reasons both tabloid-minuscule (Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie appear as a weird married couple) and world-historical (9/11), this film about cavalier air-traffic controllers now plays chiefly as a relic of another time. It even opens and closes with shots of passenger jets soaring right over the downtown Manhattan skyline.

But in its depiction of men whose adrenaline-fueled workdays leave them ill-equipped for the inevitable comedown of domestic life, Pushing Tin also plays now like a sort of life-before-wartime Hurt Locker. So in spite of its flaws, Pushing Tin does admirably push into territory not often explored in movies. Newell probably could've made three or four of these with Prince of Persia's budget.