The good news is Sir Ben Kingsley brings gravitas and dimension to a brilliantly scripted tale in which time moves backward. The bad news is that he did so in 1983’s big screen version of the Harold Pinter play “Betrayal”, which tracks an extramarital affair from its break up back to its beginning. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest video store.
Of course, many things have changed in the nearly thirty years since then. The once estimable thespian, for example, has morphed into a shameless pursuer of paycheck roles. CGIs now so routinely make the impossible possible that the result is routinely impossibly dull. And, you may have noticed, a motion picture is less likely to be based on a work by Pinter than on a product designed for Playstation.
Which is what we have here. “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” brings the characters of Ubisoft’s popular video game to flesh and blood life. (Its creator, Jordan Mechner, shares executive producer billing with Jerry Bruckheimer and even gets credit for the story, raising the question: might today’s game designers turn out to be tomorrow’s Hollywood moguls?)
This seems more conceivable than ever as you watch a buffed up Jake Gyllenhaal leap from rooftop to rooftop, scale castle walls, swing from anything available and spin sword in hand in slow motion with gravity-defying effortlessness in Mike Newell’s extraordinarily busy yet instantly forgettable valentine to ten year olds.
The actor stars as the game’s main character, Dastan, who was adopted as a child by the benevolent King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) after impressing him with his bravery and acrobatic ability one day in the local bazaar. He shares the palace with his father, brothers Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) along with his uncle Nizam (Kingsley). Hmm, guess who’s secretly an evil, power hungry weasel.
For the luckless adults roped into accompanying all those ten year olds, the film’s writing team has peppered the story with lame topical references. Get this: Nizam convinces the princes to attack the holy city of Alamut. He tells them that vast storehouses of weapons are hidden there and intended for sale to Persia’s enemies. In the course of the siege, it’s discovered the intel was bogus. There’s not a WMD to be found. Which I suppose means that Dick Cheney should have gotten a story credit too.
What are found in Alamut are a beautiful princess-Clash of the Titans’ Gemma Arterton-and a magical dagger which reverses time when the red button on its handle is pressed. Certain nefarious figures would like to get their hands on the weapon, which Arterton’s character has vowed to protect, so the balance of the picture consists of Prince Dastan and Princess Tamina eluding a ho-hum assortment of pursuers while bickering in that cute way which signals to ten year olds that the two actually have the hots for each other.
Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”), to put it kindly, is not an action guy. The film’s many fight and chase scenes are sliced and diced to the point of incomprehensibility. For that matter, Gyllenhaal seems ill suited to such silliness. He’s too fine an actor for this sort of frenzied, mindless mayhem and that may be why his heart doesn’t really seem to be in his performance much of the time.
Bruckheimer and his pals at Disney envisioned “Prince of Persia” as a successor to their lucrative “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise but I don’t think there are enough bored ten year olds in the world to make that dream come true. “The Sands of Time” cost the princely sum of $200 million to make. My guess is right about now its creators are wishing they could press that magic button, go back to the initial pitch session and pitch this picture’s screenplay into the nearest waste basket.