Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Playing in the sand: ‘Prince of Persia’ is pure summer movie fluff, and that’s what makes it fun
"Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’’ is based on a video game, but its roots go further back than that. What would the movies be without enthusiastically corny B-flick swashbucklers to fill theaters on a lazy summer day? All you need are some fancy period sets — cardboard then, CGI now — a handsome young star declaiming stiff Classics Illustrated dialogue, a starlet to bicker and swoon, and a respected older actor in need of ready cash as the dastardly prince/vizier/regent. Add sand, swordplay, a few camels, and presto: stalwart action product, ridiculous but functional.
Which is to say that Jake Gyllenhaal as the doughty Prince Dastan is just the latest in a long line of earnest, tunic-clad sides of beef. In fact, his potted British accent — this is ancient Persia, after all — can stand with Tony Curtis’s Bronx yawp in 1951’s “The Prince Who Was a Thief’’ for sheer what-the-hell period absurdity. But to expect more from a movie that doesn’t even take itself very seriously is probably a mistake.
For one thing, “Prince of Persia’’ has been stitched together from so many other movies that it plays like an attack of multiple déjà vu. Stray bits of “Star Wars,’’ “Pirates of the Caribbean,’’ “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’’ and “Robin Hood’’ pass by like flotsam, and the overwhelming tone is good-natured but alarmingly generic. You’ve seen “Lord of the Rings’’? Here’s the
Dastan is the adopted son of Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), king of Persia, and please don’t spoil things by referring to the country’s modern name (shhh, it’s Iran). A former street urchin, he’s now a kind-hearted sort given to bare-knuckles bouts with his soldiers while the king’s natural sons Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) busy themselves with expanding the empire. (Those names! They sound like the whims of a desperate Scrabble player; you keep expecting a consul named Etaoin Shrdlu to turn up.)
Off in the corner plotting evil deeds is the king’s brother, Nizam. Ben Kingsley appears to have researched this role by studying Max Von Sydow’s hambone Ming the Merciless in 1980’s “Flash Gordon,’’ and, truthfully, that’s probably the only sane approach. Nizam engineers a coup and pins the blame on Dastan, who hits the road with only a comely virgin priestess named Tamina (Gemma Arterton) and her glowing dagger for company.
Up to now, “Prince of Persia’’ has offered sniggeringly bad dialogue (“It’s said the princess of Alamut is a beauty without equal’’), lots of athletic Iron Age parkour, and a pointed subplot about the Persians’ assault on a holy city in search of weapons of minor destruction — swords, mostly — that aren’t there. As Dastan and Tamina get to know each other in their wanderings, though, the movie loosens up and starts to have fun. The central romance is rehashed Han Solo and Leia, but Alfred Molina as a scruffy bandit leader with a stable of racing ostriches gets the funniest lines and knows exactly what to do with them.
That glowing dagger turns out to be a time travel device key to Nizam’s plans, and “Prince of Persia’’ eventually wends its way toward a big, noisy, Jerry Bruckheimer climax in which Dastan must save the world from turning into a giant catbox. The problem is that all blockbuster apocalypses look pretty much the same by now, and this one leans more heavily than it should on the video-game template of getting the hero from point A to point B by solving mazes and such. Gyllenhaal has turned in an acceptably pro performance so far (it consists mostly of keeping a straight face), but even he seems to check out of the proceedings late in the game.
“Prince of Persia’’ is truly silly, formulaic stuff, without an original thought in its over-produced head. No actual Persians were harmed (or even consulted) in its making. So why did I enjoy myself as much as I did? In part by laughing at the movie — sometimes you take what you can get — but also because pulp this unembarrassed can have a verve, even an innocence, that’s unusual these days. It’s the rare junk that knows its name.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.