The good news is that Sir Ben Kingsley brings gravitas and dimension to a brilliantly scripted tale in which time moves backwards. The bad news is that I’m referring to 1983’s big-screen version of the Harold Pinter play Betrayal, which tracks an extramarital affair from its breakup back to its beginning. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest video store.
Of course, many things have changed in the nearly 30 years since then. The once estimable thespian Kingsley, for example, has morphed into a shameless pursuer of paycheck roles. CGI effects 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: Are today’s game designers 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 in slow motion, sword in hand, with gravity-defying effortlessness in Mike Newell’s extraordinarily busy yet instantly forgettable Valentine to 10-year-olds.
The actor plays 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) and his uncle Nizam (Kingsley). Hmm, guess who’s secretly an evil, power-hungry weasel.
For the luckless adults roped into accompanying all those kiddies, the film’s writing team has peppered the story with lame topical references. Get this: Nizam persuades the princes to attack the holy city of Alamut. He tells them that vast storehouses of weapons hidden there are marked for sale to Persia’s enemies. In the course of the siege, the intel is revealed to be bogus. There’s not a WMD to be found. Which I suppose means Dick Cheney should have a story credit, too.
What are found in Alamut are a beautiful princess — Clash of the Titans’ Gemma Arterton — and a magical dagger that reverses time when you press the red button on its handle. 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 that signals to children that the two actually have the hots for each other.
Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) is, to put it kindly, 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 also 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 generally doesn’t seem to be in his performance.
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 10-year-olds in the world to make that dream come true. The Sands of Time was made for the princely sum of $200 million. My guess is that 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 wastebasket.