Let’s get the least significant thing about “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” out of the way first: Is it OK to cast Brit and American actors in the roles of Persians? Yes. It’s called “acting.”
But is Jake Gyllenhaal (“Brothers“) good as Dastan, a former street urchin who has been adopted by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup, “Lolita“) and is now an honorary Prince of Persia? Not particularly. Gyllenhaal has never struck me as being an actor who exudes much charm and savoir faire, two qualities the lead in one of these retro-historical swashbucklers must have all the way to his fingertips.
He looks great and he pulls off the physical stuff with apparent ease, but when he has to engage in barbed dialogue exchanges with Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton, “Clash of the Titans“) or that wonderful scene-stealer Alfred Molina (“The Pink Panther 2“) as Sheik Amar, master of the get-rich-quick scheme, he’s woefully out of his league.
As the central story gets under way, King Sharaman’s No. 1 son, Tus (Richard Coyle, TV’s “Coupling“) is about to conquer the holy city of Alamut to expand his father’s empire. Dastan becomes a hero of the attack and snatches a dagger he will quickly realize is enchanted. Seems that if you put some magic sand in the handle and press down on top ” like clicking a ballpoint pen ” time will reverse for the last two or three minutes, but only the person holding the knife will know it.
There’s some mystical hoo-ha about what the gods will do if the dagger falls into the wrong hands. I won’t go into detail just in case you decide to see the movie and you’re younger than 7 years old and can’t figure out where the plot is headed while you’re still at the concession stand.
Warning, however: This is one of those pictures in which the application of magic means that anything can be changed for the better. Did I mention this movie is based on a video game? Challenging, the plot is not.
Dastan’s uncle, the so-obviously-evil-it’s-painful Nizam (Ben Kingsley, “Shutter Island“) wants the dagger for his own nefarious ends. He and Alamutian Princess Tamina, its current guardian, keep grabbing the damn thing away from each other. In fact, it seems as if everyone in ancient Persia gets his hands on it, at least briefly. The movie’s biggest drag is the monotony of its action, which is all running and jumping and sword-fighting and dagger-snatching, repeat, repeat, repeat.
Written by Boaz Yakin (“Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights“), Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard (“The Uninvited“), the film is not humorless, but at the same time, it doesn’t exude a feeling of fun. It has none of the twinkle-in-the-eye quality that made producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy such a pleasure.
The actors seem to think that this is a serious historical melodrama, except Molina and Kingsley; the two old pros know mud when they’re stuck in it. Arterton, who first caught our attention in “Quantum of Solace,” just doesn’t look like a knockout “Arabian Nights” fantasy princess. No sparks crackle between her and Gyllenhaal.
Mike Newell’s direction is workmanlike at best. He doesn’t have the aw-who-cares-what-the-critics-think exuberance of a Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich. It’s as if after “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” he wanted to play in the blockbuster field with the big boys, but at the same time, isn’t quite creatively suited for it.
The music by Harry Gregson-Williams (“Shrek Forever After“) manages the unusual feat of being bombastic and boring both at once. The production design team and the CGI guys create some fascinating images, even matching at times the “Conan” paperback cover art of Frank Frazetta. I caught some of that Frazettan thud-and-blunder posing with the actors during the action scenes.
I suspect “Prince of Persia” will turn out to be the biggest disappointment for Disney since Lindsay Lohan. I’m not predicting a bomb, but Gyllenhaal’s no Johnny Depp. Nice try, but no cigar. This drip of the desert isn’t even an unfiltered Camel. “Doug Bentin