They all laughed — hell, they pissed themselves – when producer Jerry Bruckheimer claimed he could turn a theme park into a cinematic golden goose. A near $3 billion gross for a trio of Pirates of the Caribbean epics forced the doubters to take their snark and suck it. So attention must be paid now that Bruckheimer has fixed his gaze on video games, in this case Jordan Mechner's platform-based Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Can Bruckheimer succeed in a gamer world where Super Mario Bros., Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat and Max Payne fell on their digital asses? I wouldn't bet against him. Prince of Persia is bulimia-light on substance, but it's quick on its feet and loaded with action and humor. Jake Gyllenhaal and his newly developed abs star as Prince Dustan, a street kid of ancient Persia who is adopted by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) and raised as a brother to the king's blood sons, Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle). So far, so giddy, as Gyllenhaal, trained in the free-running discipline of Parkour, has the acrobatic time of his life leaping up walls and parapets, stopping only to crack wise or flirt with the perky Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton).
The plot congeals when Dustan and the Persian army are tricked into invading the city of Alamut, where the enemy is allegedly hiding weapons of what would then qualify as mass destruction. No worries. The Iraq parallels in the script by Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard are soon kicked to the curb. Fantastical adventure trumps all as Dustan comes into the possession of a sand-filled dagger that can turn back time with a touch. Everyone wants it, including the king's brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley) and Sheik Amar (a live-wire Alfred Molina), a master of the con and ostrich racing. When Dustan is falsely accused of murdering the king, the shit (or the PG-13 equivalent) hits the wind machine.
Prince of Persia is too cozy and safe to excite the senses, though John Seale's location shooting in Morocco is a sight to behold. Gyllenhaal's roguish charm meshes nicely with the spirited sexual teasing of Arterton, who scored as a Bond girl too quickly dispatched in Quantum of Solace. Sadly, nothing pops up to take us by surprise. There's no Johnny Depp around as Jack Sparrow to twist the plot into perversely funny shapes. Director Mike Newell, equally at home with comedy (Four Weddings and a Funeral), drama (Donnie Brasco) and franchise-polishing (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), tries to compensate by staging a rousing series of traps and escapes that keep the blood racing. The retro appeal of the movie is undeniable, recalling the Arabian Nights splendor of 1940's The Thief of Bagdad.
What's missing in Prince of Persia is a sense that all the running, jumping, climbing and fighting is leading to something. The best video games challenge you to reach the next level. Prince of Persia is content to skim the surface.