“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” is silky to the touch, but slips from the mind all too easily. Based loosely on a series of popular videogames, producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s passably enjoyable, antiquity-themed epic should satisfy its young male core demographic well enough, but won’t connect with other auds on the level of Bruckheimer’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. Mike Newell’s workmanlike helming is no embarrassment, but pic’s lack of game-changing originality, distinguishing anarchic streak or 3D wow factor may relegate this to summertime also-ran status.
From its opening moments — as mock-medieval subtitles foretell lives shaped by destiny and a map of ancient Persia shows the empire’s scale — “Prince” feels resolutely old-fashioned. Until Alfred Molina shows up as a comic-relief proto-libertarian half-way through, the script lacks the deliberately anachronistic, tongue-in-cheek humor auds have come to expect from big-budget period productions. Remove the state-of-the-art f/x, and “Prince” would look of a piece with the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks version of “The Thief of Bagdad.” It’s more throwback than retro refit.
That said, the script credited to Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard (based on a story by Jordan Mechner, who created the original games) smuggles in one major contempo subtext: The whole plot hinges on the fact that the baddie has tricked the Persian Army into invading the city of Alamut because its denizens are supposedly smuggling weapons of minor destruction (basically swords) to Persia’s enemies. The film’s cloudy allegory about the current war in Iraq might spark some debate, but on the surface, its message about brotherhood is much more anodyne.
When young street-rat Dastan (Will Foster) catches the eye of King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) in the city market, the king raises Dastan as his own son (he grows up to be Jake Gyllenhaal), alongside his natural-born sons Garsiv (Toby Kebbell), the empire’s good-hearted heir, and the more belligerent Tus (Richard Coyle). Sharaman’s brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley, wearing eyeliner and a sneer borrowed from Jafar in “Aladdin”) acts as a shadowy adviser to the court.
During the sacking of Alamut, Dastan gets his hands on a beautiful dagger with a crystal hilt that holds the titular sands of time. When anyone clicks a ruby on the hilt, the dagger, like a magic ballpoint, sends that person a minute back in time, prompting brief storms of swirling, animated gold dust and visual effects.
Haughty but hot Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) wants the dagger back. She goes on the run with Dastan when he’s accused of murdering his father, and the two eventually fall into each other’s arms — but first into the greasy clutches of Molina’s shady Sheik Amar, a roguish, self-styled “promoter” who runs ostrich races and hates tax collectors.
Even auds who have never heard of “Prince of Persia” will be able to spot that this is all derived from a platform-based computer game, so metronomic is the pic’s pacing of fights and action scenes, escalating to a final showdown between Dastan and his biggest foe. The interstitial slabs of drama are just about substantial enough to maintain moderate grown-up interest, although the dialogue is largely boilerplate Bruckheimer, a mix of heroic declamations, painstakingly spelt-out explication and semi-amusing wisecracks. Script’s cleverest move is a structural tweak in the last reel that evokes a game player’s approach to story.
Having limbered up with “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” protean Brit helmer Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Donnie Brasco”) does just fine popping the action’s kernels, but any personal seasoning can hardly be tasted. Perhaps what Newell brought most to the party was an affinity with the almost entirely British cast and crew. (Apart from the Moroccan locations, pic was shot at Pinewood Studios, and many of the post-production companies are Blighty-based.)
Thesping is generally adequate but no better, with the expressive Arterton best in show and Gyllenhaal a minor disappointment. Physically, he has the grace and chiseled biceps of a megastar in the making, but the wolfish charisma he usually projects in smaller dramas seems to have degraded here into hangdog dopiness. (The unflattering heavy-metal haircut doesn’t help.) The ever-reliable Molina adds sparkle, but no one else seems to be having that much fun, or doing what Johnny Depp did for “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Well-integrated production design by Wolf Kroeger and costumes by Penny Rose blend looks and motifs ranging from ancient Mesopotamia to medieval India to fashion a glittering mash-up of orientalist kitsch. From the intricate cityscapes to the f/x setpieces when the sands of time do their thing, there’s a sense the pic has altogether too much design and not enough style.