"Iran Up the Wall; Iraq Your World"
Jake Gyllenhaal's buffed-up appearance reflects the hefty expansion of the "Prince of Persia" video game from a simple 2-D grid game one level ahead of "Donkey Kong"(see below) to a full-blooded adventure story reminiscent of Hollywood's back-lot recreations of Arabian Night stories, from Doug Fairbanks to Ray Harryhausen. There are no sabre- and bone-rattling skeletons or out-sized shellfish scuttling across the screen in "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," the menaces are purely human and reflect intrigue amidst a royal family with absolute authority over a territory extending, as we're informed, "from the steppes of China to the shores of the Mediterranean."
Why, it's almost as big as the Ponderosa.
To carry the frivolus "Bonanza" analogy further,* King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) rules with equanimity with the help of his brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley), his regent, and his three sons—two by birth. First in line to be King is Tus (Richard Coyle), then Garsiv (Toby Kebbell). Last up is Dastan (Gyllenhaal), a "street-rat" adopted by the King after witnessing the boy's bravery and selflessness—a sequence that borrows heavily from the "One Jump Ahead" sequence from Disney's "Alladin."** Dastan's prowess video-game leaping from roof-top to roof-top across the alley-ways of the city are demonstrated—and there is a representative slo-mo level shift in every action sequence with eye-rolling regularity—but the new addition proves beneficial, despite being the black sheik of the family.
Time is the key to "Prince of Persia," for once the old king advances in age, it falls on his two and half men-sons to expand his kingdom and keep the CGI populace of the vast CGI cities under control. When we transition to the story-proper, the three are quibbling over who should lead the attack invading the Holy City of Alamut, where it is suspected that a cache of weapons is being created for a suspected attack on the Royal City of Nasaf. That there are weapons is as sure as yellow-cake, but Dastan is suspicious that the the invasion is unnecessary and pointless.
I'd screech to a halt at this point, but you can't screech on sand. Buried deep in the shifting plot-line there are some allusions to recent events in the same region, especially once it's discovered there aren't any "secret weapons caches" anywhere in the city. Why attack it, then? There's something important there, and somebody wants it...in the worst way.
It gets complicated. Before we're done brother is pitted against brother, and Dastan falls under suspicion for war-crimes. He becomes a fugitive, with the reluctant help of the feisty, yet nubile Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton, I'm sure the writers resisted calling her "Homina, Homina") and some rogues along the way—Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina) and the mysterious fighter Seso (Steve Toussaint), the kinds of entertaining second bananas required of this type of tale. Familiar? Yes, but the scenarists and director Mike Newell (Enchanted April, Donnie Brasco, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire—no slouch, he!) manage to satisfy the gamer-need for frenzy and the genre's need for romanticism, while keeping enough fresh ideas to make it all entertaining.
Despite that opening "Alladin" sequence, everything happens a bit differently: the seige of Alamut is staged with an initial assault that is swash-bucklingly aggressive, while also showing ample opportunities why it could go hilariously wrong. Yes, it has the standard big glowing action set-piece at the end, but there are enough dire consequences of it that one actually begins to suspect that the film-makers want to mess with the audience's expectations.
Not to worry. "Prince of Persia" is a big, old-fashioned popcorn adventure movie, done with the love of past desert epics glinting in its sand-encrusted eye. Quibble all you want, it is the best of the video-game movie-adaptations—several levels above, one is tempted to say—determined to entertain the kiddies in all of us.
Be sure and get a large pop-corn. And a large drink—they don't make anything of it, but it gets thirsty out there in the desert.
"Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" is a Saturday Matinee.
* But not as far as one could with, say, "Legends of the Fall."
** As Disney is releasing "Prince of Persia," I'm sure any intellectual property problems will be solved by memo.