Okay, Jake Gyllenhaal’s sudden, suntanned muscularity suggests Malibu Beach more than it does ancient Persia; and one wonders if ancient Persians said things like “Watch your back” and “I need a drink.” Still, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” seems (I’m guessing) like a pretty great Arabian-adventure movie for kids. It’s made in the classic Disney style: no sex, no swearing, and lots of action with very little blood. So if you know a kid — of the male persuasion, ideally — you might want to take him to see it. You might also want to wait at a bar while he does so.
The movie is based on a long-evolving video game created by Jordan Mechner, who came up with the story for the film, too. It’s the sort of story whose hazy details could only be ignored by a kid waiting impatiently for the next eruption of swordplay, rope-swinging and bad-guy noggin-conking. Gyllenhaal plays Dastan, a commoner who was adopted as an urchin, for reasons we can hurry right past here, by the good King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), who raised the boy along with his two sons, Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle). Also lurking about is the lads’ uncle, Nizam (Ben Kingsley, wearing enough eye shadow to put him in danger of drawing harem duty).
As the tale gets underway, Nizam brings news that the holy city of Alamut (the names in this picture might have been concocted from random grabs of Scrabble tiles) is supplying weapons to Persia’s enemies. The now-grown Dastan is heroically helpful in storming Alamut’s battlements, and once inside draws the attention of the resident Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton). After some preliminary squabbling (the traditional prelude to a chaste Disney kiss), she eventually informs him that Alamut is the repository of “the beating heart of all life — the sandglass of the gods.” You’d never guess it from the outside.
The sandglass turns out to be located in the handle of a golden dagger, of which Dastan, for some typically hazy reason, is in possession. Pressing a button on this magical artifact summons a fiery wind that allows the dagger’s wielder to go back one minute in time and undo whatever terrible things may need to be undone. Such a thing soon ensues: King Sharaman dons a robe that someone has given him as a gift and … it kills him. (The haze thickens.) Dastan is quickly fingered as the malefactor and must flee into the desert with Tamina.
Out among the dunes they encounter a character named Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina), who presides over a desert settlement where he stages ostrich races “every Tuesday and Thursday.” (As you always suspected of ostrich races, they’re fixed.) When the duplicitous Amar learns that there’s a reward out for Dastan’s capture, the prince and his princess are forced to flee again, this time under cover of an ostrich stampede, which I must say is something to see.
Dastan now rashly decides that the time is right to return home to attend the funeral of his father, and to try to determine who is responsible for his death. (Men with an overabundance of eye shadow are of course always prime suspects.) Various trials must be endured along the way — a trudge through the Valley of the Slaves, an onslaught of black-clad, whip-flicking Hassassins (the hashish-stoked killers of legend, but here — this being a Disney film — apparently drug-free). In the end, Dastan and Tamina make it back to his native castle and … so forth and so on.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer really knows his way around this sort of great big money-stuffed movie, and here he delivers everything you might expect. The action is excitingly staged (some of the wild roof-leaping suggests that the urban acrobatics of parkour were devised far earlier than we’d thought), although the CGI varies from beautiful (the hilltop city of Alamut) to whatever (that fiery wind). There are some funny touches, too — Molina in particular seems to be having a ball. Most amusing, though, is the fact that, in the grand tradition of Hollywood movies about long-ago foreigners, all the main parts are played by Brits — except for that of Gyllenhaal, of course, who nevertheless affects a British accent in solidarity with his fellow Persians.
Despite his tanned buffness, however, Gyllenhaal is a little too laid-back for serious swashbuckling; and Arterton, a good actress in other pictures, here falls back on her basic gorgeousness, occasionally inflected with a curious lip twitch that she really ought to have looked at. But then if you feel that acting quality is a serious concern, you’re not the target audience for this hard-charging fantasy epic. Fortunately, the bar’s right down the street.
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