Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
- Directed by Mike Newell
- Written by Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard
- Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton
- Classification: PG
Actors are all prisoners of their appearance, and Jake Gyllenhaal is more shackled than most. A handsome fellow no doubt but, with those soft features and dewy eyes, he's just not an action hero, let alone an action hero in a costume drama set deep in the dunes of ancient times. Sorry, but the guy can't credibly play a Persian prince - a Persian cat, maybe. Don't get me wrong. When it comes to blockbuster flicks based on best-selling video games, I'm willing to allow for a little wiggle room in the verisimilitude department. So if a miscast Jake was the only fly in this epic ointment, we might still have had ourselves a picture. Alas, he isn't and we don't.
Fly No. 2 is director Mike Newell, who likes to fancy himself a jack-of-all-genres, boasting a résumé that zigzags from Four Weddings and a Funeral through Donnie Brasco to a segment of the Harry Potter franchise. But Newell has never been a fast hand with the camera, and, here, when the script calls for kinetic, he pulls up lame. Proof isn't long in arriving. Just a few frames in, the walled city of Alamut must be stormed and sacked. Well, cue the usual tepid arsenal of distracting close-ups, visual clutter and cheesy CGI. Cue too the glaze already starting to form over our blasé eyes - been there, seen that.
Of course, leading the attack is Dastan (Gyllenhaal), who, you should know, is not a prince by birth. Plucked off the mean streets by the King and raised in the court, he's an adopted royal, undeniably noble in character but not blue of blood, thereby inviting some jealous enmity from the monarch's natural-born sons. Ain't it always the way. Indeed, in another nod to timeless happenings, the city got invaded under false pretences - turns out that it wasn't secretly harbouring any of those pernicious, catapulting WMDs. More happily, it does house the beauteous Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) and, as luck would have it, the "sands of time" - to be precise, a glass-handled dagger with a red button that, when pushed, reverses time's flow and permits its lucky owner the luxury of a "do-over." In a video game, this is a handy device; in a movie, it's a world-beater, and thus good and evil alike are vying for possession.
So the teams form up with, naturally, our dewy Prince and the spunky Princess on the side of the angels. Together, they venture forth to do battle with sandstorms and snakes and a wicked band of knife-savvy assassins, and don't forget Ben Kingsley. In keeping with the general mood of B-movie serials, there's even a cliff to hang from, along with occasional pauses for comic refreshment, interludes where the hero banters and ostriches cavort. Or is it the reverse? Anyway, whenever the corner gets lethally tight, the good guys just grab that time-shifting dagger, hustle back a few minutes, and stage a different outcome. Feels like cheating to me, but then again I'm not much of a gamer.
But back to Jake. To his credit, portraying a character unblessed with superpowers but apparently well-schooled in the ancient Persian art of video-game "parkour," he clambers up walls and jumps across rooftops convincingly well. What proves more daunting to him is the sound barrier, the aural convention dictating that the denizens of our classic past, like the Greeks and the Romans and now the Persians too, all speak the King's English with a pronounced British accent. An American to the tip of his tongue, Jake tries valiantly to pitch his speech somewhere in the mid-Atlantic range, but his efforts are faint and fleeting and, by my reckoning, barely get him out of territorial waters (although it's plenty deep enough to drown his performance).
Yet spare him any pity. As Dastan is prone to say, "We make our own destiny." If so, Prince of Persia is destined to disappear into the quicksand of time, too innocuous to be hated, too bland to be remembered, just awaiting some bright optimist in a distant future to press the do-over button.