'Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time'

Movie review: Jake Gyllenhaal's 'Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010

With the greasy, unkempt hair of an emo rocker and a Bart Simpson smirk, Jake Gyllenhaal goes swinging, leaping, slashing and joking his way through "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," an energetic if empty-headed adventure based on the popular video game. Though set in a sea of sand that's supposed to be ancient Persia, the movie features a titular hero whose anachronistic catchphrases -- "That all ya got?" and "Whoa," uttered in an incongruous Cockney accent -- makes him sound less like a Middle Eastern prince than an East End pothead.

The focus of Prince Dastan's acrobatic exertions, which careen from ninja-like moves to the wall-bouncing gymnastics of parkour, is a special dagger he has stumbled upon. When a jewel is pressed on its hilt, releasing the few thimblefuls of sand inside, it has the ability to rewind time, but only for one minute. It's like Adam Sandler's magical remote control in "Click," but with a weak battery. When you run out of sand, you run out of power.

Not just any sand will work, either. Hidden underground is a giant glass vessel filled with the right kind. Only the dagger can break the glass. Once broken, the sand inside will flow through the knife's handle, giving its user virtually unlimited ability to travel backward in time. One more thing: If all the sand is used up, the world will end.

The other problem is that Dastan's not the only one who knows about it. Someone else wants it -- most likely Dastan's brother Tus (Richard Coyle) or his uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) -- and has set Dastan up for the murder of his adoptive father, King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup). Dastan, you see, is not of royal blood, so he makes a logical suspect. (It might also explain the low-class accent and his aversion to shampoo.) Whoever really killed Sharaman wants Dastan out of the way so that he can find the source of the charmed sand himself and, you know, exert dominion over the blah, blah, blah.

With the assistance of the dagger's official custodian, Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), Dastan must stop that from happening. Along the way, he and Tamina -- a spirited, tart-tongued women's libber in a country not known for gender equality -- engage in predictable verbal sparring even as they dodge arrows, flying knives, snakes and hired assassins (called, preposterously, Hassansins).

As in a video game, each obstacle or level of challenge they encounter is progressively more difficult. But this is a movie we're watching here. Although "Prince of Persia" stimulates the circulatory and nervous systems, it engages none of the higher faculties of game play. Like, say, hand-eye coordination and map-reading skills. It's a frenetic yet passive experience.

There are, however, a few distinct pleasures. The stunt work is consistently exciting and well filmed, by director Mike Newell. And the character of Seso (Steve Toussaint) -- a Sudanese knife thrower with almost no dialogue who at first appears to be a very bad guy and then turns out to be a very good one -- makes a welcome presence.

I wish I could say the same about Seso's boss, Sheik Amar, a bandit who befriends Dastan and Tamina, and aids them in their quest. Played with the broadest of broad humor by Alfred Molina, he's clearly meant as comic relief. But from what? Does a movie this silly really need two clowns?

Every sly wink and gymnastic tumble from Gyllenhaal's Dastan, who already looks and acts like a refugee from Cirque du Soleil, seems to suggest otherwise.

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