With Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Steve Toussaint. Directed by Mike Newell. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action. 116 minutes.
Even if you never played it or heard of it, within a very short time after the start of PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME, you’d realize this is a movie based on a video game. The plot is so thin and the characters so cardboard that it may take a while to even figure out what’s going on. Comparisons to “Pirates Of The Caribbean” – which was based on an amusement part ride – are inevitable and numerous, but that’s wishful thinking on Disney’s part. The first “Pirates” was clever and engaging, with a scene-stealing turn by Johnny Depp. With the exception of one supporting performance, nothing here comes close.
We’re in a fictional Persia where King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) adopts a homeless street urchin named Dastan into the royal family. Dastan grows up to be played by Jake Gyllenhaal, loyal to his father, his two royal brothers, and his Uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley). As soon becomes clear, all is not as it appears. Indeed, when the desert sand settles, Dastan is on the run for the death of the king, Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) is trying to reclaim a magical dagger, and Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina) shows up to run ostrich races and, possibly, to collect the reward on Dastan’s head.
Thank goodness for Molina. Most of the casts are blanks – Arterton’s Tamina is singularly unmemorable – and Kingsley seems to be trying eradicate our memory of his great roles by turning in a performance that would embarrass the most over-emoting ham. Molina proves to be the comic relief, railing against taxes like a speaker at a teabagger rally.
Most of the movie runs as if you’re running from one level to the next in a video game. More than once Dastan must flee a city. He dodges arrows, has to get past the closing gate, and may be betrayed by one of his relatives. At the end of the round, he’s won or lost, and then gets to go to the next round. Will he be climbing walls and jumping from roof to roof? Often. Will the knife-throwing Seso (Steve Toussaint) prove friend or foe? Wait and see. Will Dastan hit the reset button and get a do-over? Amazingly, yes. Several times. Is anything done to make us actually care whether he succeeds, given that we’re passive movie viewers and not actually playing the game? Surprisingly little.
What’s surprising is that Mike Newell agreed to direct this, given that his credits include “Four Weddings And A Funeral” and “Donnie Brasco.” Presumably the executives at Disney were more impressed that he did “Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire” and some episodes of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” but even there he had characters and stories with which to work. Other than the special effects budget he’s got nothing here.
As mindless spectacle – and that really means not thinking at all while watching it – “Prince of Persia” might be diverting. However, as we hit Memorial Day Weekend, the question, “Is there something really worth seeing at the movies this season?” has yet to have come up with an answer.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.