Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

If Nicholas Cage is a little unhinged in Bad Lieutenant, Jake Gyllenhaal is literally climbing the walls as the acrobatic Prince of Persia in The Sands of Time, a breakneck adventure based on the 1990s video game.

Those of you prepared to read beyond the words “based on a video game” won’t be surprised to discover that Prince of Persia isn’t much of a film. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, is hoping to establish a new franchise in the vein of his multi-billion dollar Pirate of the Caribbean behemoth, and so fashions an old-fashioned quest from the same popcorn elements; swashbuckling action, bickering lovers, glittering special effects, exotic locations and a dash of the supernatural. It doesn't work.

Gyllenhaal, all hair extensions and enviable abdominals, plays the dashing hero Dastan, a street urchin adopted by the 6th Century Persian King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) and brought to live in his glittering palace. Raised alongside the King’s two princes, firebrand Tus (Richard Coyle) and the more level-headed Garsiv (Toby Kebbell), Dastan spends most of his time climbing walls and jumping over buildings in an ancient approximation of the modern sport of free-running.

When the King’s brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley) enlists the princes to lead an army against the city of Alamut, Dastan is determined to prove himself a brave hero and so hares off over the battlements in his inimitable style. In a not-so-subtle Iraq allegory, the city is suspected of hiding weapons of mass destruction but after a thorough search, the armaments cannot be found. Instead, Dastan discovers a magical dagger called The Sands of Time, which, at the press of a ruby button, shifts time backwards by a couple of seconds.

It’s not the kind of implement that will allow you to breakfast with cavemen but the ornamental blade is handy, if like Dastan, you need to sidestep a swooping scimitar, dodge a rain of arrows or what have you. When the king is assassinated with a cloak of fire and Dastan is wrongly accused of the murder, he goes on the run to clear his name. Rather, he goes on the hop, skip and jump. Along for the ride is the vaguely supernatural Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), a kind of vestal virgin without the virgin who is charged with protecting the sacred, time-reversing knife. Together they cross the desert, encountering an ostrich-racing Sheik (Alfred Molina), a gang of milky-eyed Hashhashin killers and sundry other ornately-costumed threats.

In an effort to pad out the inherent scrawniness of a script built around a button-bashing game, the writers have thrown together a handful of one-dimensional character types to enact a one-directional quest, scattered with a series of sword-and-sandal clichés. Taken together, this hodgepodge procession of energetic incidents and special effects sequences is supposed to add up to a story, but it never does. Remove the state of the art visual effects and Prince of Persia would be indistinguishable from the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks version of The Thief of Baghdad, albeit without the same measure of charm or daring spectacle.

The direction, from Harry Potter’s Mike Newell, favours exposition over characterisation and feels leaden and perfunctory. The performances are adequate, but no better than that. Gyllenhaal has the physical presence but none of the charisma required. Artherton does better as the spunky princess, but has almost nothing to play against until Molina’s ostrich arrives. Prince of Persia has its moments but they are fleeting, eye-pleasing diversions in a running time that nudges against two hours and feels decidedly longer.

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