Movie review: 'Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time'

With apologies to Ben Franklin, the only things certain in life are death, taxes and that a Jerry Bruckheimer film will do its bombastic best to pummel, pound and, now, parkour you into submission. "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" is all that — deaths by the thousands and the sort of spectacular spectacle possible with a rumored budget of $150 million and change.

But it should be more.

I realize it's risky business to ask Bruckheimer for "more," but in a world where action trumps, well, everything, there should be more of those white-knuckle, gut-wrenching feelings churning around somewhere, and there aren't, even with the death-defying, street-style gymnastics of parkour in nearly every scene. I think it's because the movie's most special prince of Persia, Jake Gyllenhaal's Dastan, is just too pretty — you know even with betrayal in the air and barbarians at the gate, no one is going to mess with that face.

Loosely based on Jordan Mechner's video game and infused with 6th century Persian fables and fantasy, director Mike Newell dives right into the crowded middle of a dusty marketplace, where an orphan boy, the aforementioned Dastan, saves a friend from all the king's men.

He will eventually change the course of history too, but before he can do that, the boy (Will Foster) must run for his life, which turns into a mind-blowing leaping, bounding, tumbling primer in the seemingly impossible athletic aesthetic of parkour. It's dazzling to watch and even impresses the king (Ronald Pickup), who promptly plucks Dastan off the streets and adds him to the royal family, joining older brothers Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and uncle Nizam ( Ben Kingsley). With that, all the internecine pieces are in place for an ill wind to blow.

Whatever subtlety Newell has brought to his films thus far ("Donnie Brasco" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" come to mind), he has shelved it for "Prince of Persia," though the writers Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard most certainly had a hand. Sometimes the film suffers for it; when passion elicits laughs, you know things have gotten off track. But at other times it's just silly fun, particularly with Sheik Amar, Alfred Molina's tax-resisting renegade, with his illegal ostrich races, his black market double-dealing and his tax tirades (between this and "Robin Hood," you would think Hollywood was run by the "tea party").

With Molina providing comic relief, the rest of the story gets serious about the future of Persia, to say nothing of mankind. That is never an easy task, and "Prince of Persia" is no exception. There's a holy city the brothers have breeched on a bad weapons-trading tip, an angry king, an inside traitor (and no doubt an inside trader or two), an assassination, a secret killing crew and a very feisty princess (Gemma Arterton).

Princess Tamina, who rules the holy city that the princes seized, is also the guardian of a secret mystery, the sands of time, which really come in handy in a pinch. As does Arterton's performance, a balance of passion, beauty and high spirits that in many scenes saves the day.

At the heart of the race and chase of the movie is a magical dagger. It has a nifty ruby red jewel to push "in case of emergency" that uses the mythical sand to transport whomever is holding it into a shape-shifting electrical storm that sends them back a minute or so to undo whatever bad deeds have been done. But as we all know from reading fairy tales and watching cable, powerful devices in the wrong hands make for major problems.

This being a story from olden times, the weapons of mass destruction are a zillion different kinds of sharp, pointy things that are constantly clipping ears, arms and heads, and embedding themselves in chests. The villains who wield most of them also dabble in dark arts and have killer snakes with magical powers that are so lame that they seem like Halloween leftovers at Wal-Mart.

Still, respect must be paid for all the many things the production designers, the effects specialists and the stunt guys did right. Framed by the exquisite eye of director of photography John Seale, who won an Oscar for "The English Patient," they work together to create a visually mesmerizing display. It's like two hours of July 4th fireworks, only with flying swords and sandstorms, and raging battles and mystical palaces rising out of the desert.

Shifting sands are the perfect place for heroes and villains to lose their footing, and there are many who stumble and fall as Dastan fights the good fight and falls in love. Which brings us back to the conundrum of Gyllenhaal.

He has proved himself a fine actor, with his closet cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain" still his defining moment. In Prince Dastan, he is supposed to be that heady mix of street smarts, roguish charm and barroom moxie with the noble heart of a lion underneath. It's a lot to ask and turns out to be something more than he can deliver. There's just a frothiness to Gyllenhaal that he can't seem to suppress — it even lurks behind Dastan's sneer — and it never fails to take the edge off. Too bad. That leaves us with a prince in need, when what we really need is prince indeed.

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