Jake Gyllenhaal cannot beef up "Prince of Persia"

The story in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time hinges on a dagger that can rewind time, a narrative conceit that doubles as a taunt to those who endure this cacophonous, frivolous adaptation of Ubisoft's Arabian Nights–themed videogame series. Bruckheimered to the hilt with the same rollicking period-piece cheesiness that typified the producer's (and the Disney studio's) Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, this latest summer spectacle — helmed unimaginatively by Mike Newell — concerns Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a buff, wannabe-rebellious hunk whose princely status comes not from a royal bloodline but via adoption, picked off the streets by a noble king (Ronald Pickup) who saw courage in the then-young scamp. Populated by strangely accented Americans and Brits posing as Middle Easterners, this origin story thoroughly recalls the Mouse House's Aladdin, to the point that you half-expect Robin Williams to suddenly appear on the soundtrack and begin maniacally crooning about Agrabah.

Have no fear: Alfred Molina, as an ostrich-racing entrepreneur, more than makes up for this absence, laying comedic-relief shtick on thick while simultaneously spouting more leaden ripped-from-the-headlines allusions than this flippant fable can withstand. Hot-topic currents course throughout Prince of Persia's initial battle, as Dastan helps his brothers-in-arms conquer a fortified sacred city only to discover that — holy Green Zone! — the weapons-manufacturing facilities they sought to destroy don't exist. These lame political overtones immediately clash with the action's cartoonishness, and might have mercifully died away amid the ensuing CGI hubbub if not for Molina's incessant yammering about being a "small-business owner" oppressed by dastardly rulers intent on levying taxes on the hard-working populace. Like Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, the film equates villainy with unfair taxation, but unlike that Nottingham snooze, Newell's popcorner at least has the good sense to try to offset its shallowly addressed contempo concerns with animated, high-flying set pieces.

As for the convoluted plot itself, Prince of Persia charts Dastan's efforts to clear his name after he's fingered for his father's assassination, a mission aided by strong-willed princess Tamina (Clash of the Titans beauty Gemma Arterton) and a magic blade that, fueled by divine sand the gods once used to try to exterminate mankind, gives those who wield it the ability to travel one minute back in time. Faithfully resembling the acrobatic videogame protagonist upon whom he's based, Gyllenhaal's blandly roguish Dastan carries out his quest by leaping, swinging, and scurrying about marketplaces and crumbling ruins with pogo-stick parkour agility. The newly muscular actor — though still too sweet and amicable a presence to radiate genuine ass-kicking machismo — carries out his derring-do with engaging proficiency. Yet Newell, he of Four Weddings and a Funeral, is ill-suited to steward such sword-and-sandals adventure. His direction — while slightly eschewing modern genre practitioners' penchant for slicing-and-dicing skirmishes into visual incoherence — is too pedestrian and partial to clumsy slo-mo effects to truly energize the story.

Blandly roguish and newly muscular: Jake Gyllenhaal.
Blandly roguish and newly muscular: Jake Gyllenhaal.

Details

Directed by Mike Newell. Written by Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard. Based on the videogame by Jordan Mechner. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, and Alfred Molina. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday at San Francisco theaters.

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Despite tossed-off gibberish about father-son bonds, nominal intrigue regarding who framed Dastan, and faux suspense over when he and Tamina will stop bickering and start sucking face, it's the sought-after supernatural blade that receives the lion's share of attention from Newell and his digital artist accomplices: The weapon's use results in whirly-twirly camera movements and Dastan's skin being infected with volcanic light. These scraps of moderately inspired eye candy, however, remain sparse and incapable of lending weight to such cash-my-paycheck-dammit material. Nowhere is that more pronounced than with Dastan's uncle, Nazim, who is embodied with apathy by Sir Ben Kingsley, and whose stone-faced evilness is expressed via a bald head and jet-black goatee that positions the stodgy scoundrel as a Mini-Me Ming the Merciless.

 
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