Jake Gyllenhaal is trying to prevent the Iraq War.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. You want to know what they did with that video game, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, in its big-budget translation to the big screen. I can only speak to the inclusion of the game’s most appealing element, a magical dagger with which players could briefly rewind time at any critical moment.
Other than that, our prince - now named Dastan and played by Jake Gyllenhaal instead of you - rises from peasantry à la Aladdin, is capable of much parkour, and ends up framed for murdering the king that took him in. Naturally, a magical dagger might come in handy for clearing one’s name when there are foes galore, and when a comely lass (Gemma Arterton) insists on keeping close so long as you possess it, of course you’d keep it around.
Everything else plays out pretty routinely from there… wait, did I already mention the snake-charming band of ninja assassins who can see the future? They don’t show up for about an hour, but at least they mark a distinct downturn of exposition (two brothers, two sons, Dastan’s destiny, secret guardian temples and the like) and the upswing of (bland) banter, (expected) unlikely alliances and (very loud) climactic showdowns. The gimmick of the dagger doesn’t really build much tension, able to un-do each and every seemingly critical moment as intended and capable of making the impossible merely difficult. (Then again, I thought that seeing our heroes overcome the impossible without cheats was the appeal of movies like this in the first place.)
Alfred Molina shows up as a scenery-chewing entrepreneur who gets to utter phrases like “Did you know ostriches have suicidal tendencies?” and leave us wondering how much closer to camp this whole ordeal could’ve been; Kingsley, meanwhile, turns in a paycheck performance as the baddie (hint: if Ben Kingsley is your uncle, don’t trust your uncle). That leaves Gyllenhaal and Arterton — he turns up the charm while saddled with an unfortunate British accent (because that + his abs = a Middle Eastern Jake Gyllenhaal); she’s got a pout that won’t quit and tends to insist that something is sacred with the same emphasis one might place on the word duh.
Arterton was already paired up with her pretty/bland male equivalent of Sam Worthington in this year’s Clash of the Titans remake, which churned out desert-destiny derring-do with similar passivity and an equivalent price tag. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer clearly wants to launch his next franchise in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean, but even the most cluttered entry in that series boasted some remarkable action. Director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) simply doesn’t bring the same visual precision to his stunts and special effects beyond the time-reversal sequences, and even the novelty of those wears off quick. If it weren’t for fleeting shots of silhouettes pursuing one another across rooftops or horses riding along a seemingly untampered landscape while Harry Gregson-Williams’ score swells up, there’d be nothing here to rouse any interest in where this might’ve ranked in the annals of action-adventures. It’s just as Arterton points out about the dagger when Gyllenhaal’s character tries to hurriedly refill it: “Without the right sand, it’s just another knife. Not even a very sharp one.”
As for that whole “Iraq War” bit… well, Dastan and his brothers initially invade the princess’ city under the false pretense of hidden weapons, and it turns out that the much coveted source of power is buried beneath them. That’s right: Aladdin meets Green Zone. Whereas that film tried to offer escapism by giving our conflict a happier ending than it’s met off-screen, this one suggests that we’d be better off just hitting a reset button on the whole mess, an indulgence pretty exclusive to a generation raised on gaming. In fact, I find it curious that three of Gyllenhaal’s most recent projects suggest a retroactive course of would-be heroism on his part — dealing with the consequences of war (Brothers), contending with a wrongheaded invasion (this), and even preventing a terrorist attack (next year’s Source Code).
Hey, it’s admittedly a stretch, but it’s also the only thing keeping Prince of Persia from blurring together with Clash of the Titans and those Mummy films and anything else that ever tried to pass off something expensive for something exciting.
William Goss lives in Orlando, Florida. But don’t hold that against him.