Making even the Middle East safe for budget-busting spectacle cinema, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the invasion we were all waiting for. Today’s empires don’t colonize but rather colon-ize. This video game adaptation with the long-winded title, the colon and the words that follow presumably promising abundant sequels, sweeps viewers off to CGI-enhanced ancient lands and holy cities and holy shit is it ever devoid of new ideas. The opening anonymous voice-over actually begins with the words, “Long ago, in a land far away…” (You mean, um, Iran?) Three different scenarists, not to mention Jordan Mechner, the video game’s author, actually got paid to write that.
Jake Gyllenhaal, who has never before been such a dry screen presence, plays this street rat who gets plucked from a life of scavenging by a benevolent polygamist king and grows up to be this disturbingly inflated, giant-necked super-acrobat and ultimate fighting champ with L.A. rocker hair and stubble and a distractingly hazy British accent. Ben Kingsley’s his uncle, always looking a little fishy, wearing too much eye liner, and talking too smart for his own good. An unsanctioned invasion transpires, the king is killed by a cloak soaked in something flammable, and Jake takes the rap. With the help of Bond-girl Gemma Arterton’s ornery princess and a time-reversing knife, Gyllenhaal of course sets the record straight and saves the day. The fevered dumbness and political obliviousness wouldn’t be so bad if things weren’t so punishingly generic.
About the only thing that makes Prince of Persia relatively diverting is Alfred Molina, who keeps turning up with his entourage of black guys who don’t get to talk much. Molina mostly complains a lot about taxes but goes wild for ostriches, whom he races and kisses while fretting over their habitual depressions. Molina’s clearly been given a lot of room to stretch out with this potentially negligible supporting role, and that’s about the smartest thing director Mike Newell does here, taking his orders from the Jerry Bruckheimer/Disney juggernaut. The camera whips around a lot yet Newell can’t seem to piece together a scene with any real coherence, particularly when there’s a lot of action to track, often resorting to excessive slow-motion to cover the lack of useful coverage. Newell’s made some actual movies before, most notably Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral, but in joining the ranks of Michael Bay he’s managed to completely erase any sense of directorial personality. Given that video games, to my knowledge, don’t employ directors, you have to wonder if soon enough movies like Prince of Persia won’t save a few bucks and simply be helmed by robots.