Plundered from the video game featuring a nimble hero who bounds around the Middle East of the Middle Ages, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is two hours of raging flames, rattling sabers, racing ostriches, and an ex-Bond girl with a spray-on tan delivering snooty pronouncements about "destiny."
A numbing muddle packed with Brits (Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina) and self-propelled stunt doubles, snorting steeds, computer-generated serpents and an Errol Flynn-ish Jake Gyllenhaal in the midst of it all, this smash-and-grab enterprise comes by way of über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and the Walt Disney Studio.
They have plans for a sequel. A franchise, even.
But there's no reason on Earth, or anywhere, for Prince of Persia 2. Gamers can go back to their sunless lairs and happily toggle their way through new scenarios. Gyllenhaal and Quantum of Solace girl Gemma Arterton will find employment, as will Kingsley and Molina. Even the caterers that served the cast and crew as they mucked about Morocco are likely to find other gaffers and grips to nourish.
There is a plot, or a tangle of them, in Prince of Persia: Gyllenhaal's Dastan is a street urchin grown up amid a royal clan (a prologue shows how the acrobatic brat first ingratiated himself with the king) who must thwart a scheme to seize the Dagger of Time - a weapon with a crystal hilt that contains the supernatural granules of the title. Whoever is in possession of the blade can glimpse into the future, thereby gaining the power to change the past and, yes, control destiny.
The only sensible thing to do is take the dagger to the Secret Guardian Temple and pour the sand back into some cosmic hourglass. Which is what Dastan and Princess Tamina (Arterton, who also provides the movie's drippy voice-over) proceed to do. Each stage along the way, in gamer mode, presents a new obstacle to surmount, a new battle to survive.
Needless to say, this singular dagger is much sought after. Bring it on Antiques Roadshow, and the appraisers would hardly be able to contain themselves.
How bad is Prince of Persia? Whether or not director Mike Newell is to blame, the action sequences lack verve and scope; they lack in every way. (Newell did the urbane Four Weddings and a Funeral, but also a special-effects-laden Harry Potter entry, The Goblet of Fire.) Here's this Persian parkour dude, swashing his buckles and buckling his swashes everywhere he goes. But his gymnastic gallivanting, and the choreographed fights and chases, couldn't be more clumsily shot and edited.
Ace cinematographer John Seale gets a nice burnished glow, but seems to have difficulty keeping pace with Gyllenhaal as he races up castle stairs, or rappels down castle walls. Gyllenhaal, heretofore known for his eccentric choices and sensitive roles, has buffed up mightily and goes shirtless to prove it, his long warrior locks blowing in the hot desert breeze.
For a moment or two, Prince of Persia undergoes an identity crisis, becoming a 15-year-old fantasy geek's version of Green Zone. That is, the movie suddenly gets all huffy and conspiratorial, condemning an invasion, and the toppling of a city, launched under false pretenses. It turns out that there are no weapons of destruction, no proof of insurrection, to be found inside the kingdom's walls.
The perpetrator of said ruse, as it happens, is the villain of Prince of Persia, he who covets the Dagger of Time. And while it would be SPOILER-ish to reveal his identity, it would also be pointless.
If you can't see the baddie of Prince of Persia coming from down the dunes and across the oasis, then you haven't been to the movies in the last hundred years.EndText