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Prince of Persia:
The Sands of Time

All Prince of Persia really needs is a genie. To make the transition from videogame franchise to Jerry Bruckheimer/Disney cash cow in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean, the creators throw everything else in to remind us of other beloved adventures set in the days of the Arabian Nights.

Even though Persia isn't Arabia, little details like that aren't enough to slow things down. It's enough to know this is once upon a time, in a land far far away from reality but as close as your Xbox. And for the most part, it actually works.

That's once director Mike Newell calms down in his efforts to remind everyone this came from a videogame. It's an odd opening strategy that seems designed to shoot himself in the directorial foot, though some of the blame might be blamed on the screenplay that insists on starting with as much realistic pacing as a cut scene on a game.

In turgid exposition, we get something like a fable to explain how orphan Dastan can rise from the streets to become (say it with me now) a "Prince of Persia." (There will be a chant-along later.) As a young boy, he demonstrated great courage and nobility, which for some reason enthralled the King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup). By adopting both the boy and tortuous logic, he gains a son who will never desire the throne because it isn't really his or something like that.

Through more tortuous logic, Dastan grows up to be Jake Gyllenhaal, sporting a working class British dialect to remind us that he's from the streets, but otherwise actually really good in the role. His brothers, the King's biological sons, command the really important and well-trained battalions in the Persian Army, while Dastan stays with the vagabonds and ragamuffins who have now grown up and fight sloppy and dirty.

Perhaps the gods have a plan for Dastan. Perhaps...

Also lurking in a well-lit background, Sharaman's brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley), always there to offer advice. Sometimes it's even good. And if Kingsley's mascaraed presence in this film does not alert you to who actually schemes against Sharaman, then Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time holds a lot of surprises for you.

Actually, that's not fair. Again, after about ten minutes of battle scenes in which Newell and cinematographer John Seale give the viewers clues as to where they should lead Dastan on their controllers next, the movie actually gets down to the business of entertaining. Its political intrigue is actually just complex enough that even though the biggest villain - or big boss, if you will - is obvious, it's not as clear who his allies will turn out to have been.

Forget about Robin Hood being a potential political allegory; screenwriter Boaz Yakim takes potshots at a few modern policies, beginning with invading a kingdom under the belief that they have weapons of mass destruction. This being ancient Persia that means really sharp swords, but it's still pretty obvious where he got his inspiration.

Later still, Alfred Molina pops up as the wily Sheik Amar, and his protests might as well be at a tea party, though he's far more amusing in his ranting. Not only does Molina provide much (on purpose) comic relief, he's also the rare modern actor who can balance that with being utterly, utterly dangerous.

Since it's based on a videogame, the sense of danger may not be too strong, though the stunts are ridiculously over the top. Dastan never walks when he can swing, jump, flip or bounce off of a wall. At first, it's kind of annoying, but Newell embraces the cheesiness of it, even staging a couple of moments as if Gyllenhaal was an ancient Batman.

To make all of that work, the filmmakers recruited some par cour experts, so the stunts may be a lot less computer generated than they appear. That's refreshing in a movie that sweetens its lushness with incredible computer backgrounds that blend almost seamlessly. The most obvious effects come when anyone triggers the dagger containing the sands of time; then the holder becomes almost a videogame version of himself, but in that case, it's an almost forgivable reminder of the story's origins.

Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time feels like it could have been made, not quite as easily, in the early sixties, if not by Ray Harryhausen, by someone trying very desperately to tap into that popularity. It's a grand adventure not afraid to wear its cheese on its sleeve.

This wouldn't be a grand adventure without a PrincESS of Persia, too, and for that role the filmmakers have Gemma Arterton, rapidly becoming the go-to girl for big screen costume adventures. She shows a lot more life here than in Clash of the Titans, but still the script keeps relegating her to being prized merely for her physical beauty. Though the two leads make half-hearted attempts at banter and developing chemistry, most of their time together is spent spitting out misty-eyed confessions of their own tragic nobility.

Thankfully, that just doesn't bog anything down. Finally, a movie set in a mystical time just embraces its setting and gives us derring-do. From time to time, it won't make sense. Some of the dialogue is self-important, but that feels like a requirement from this kind of film. If you let yourself go over to it, you'll find a lot of fun, a lot more than just Molina - who is fun every single time he's on screen -- and Kingsley, who can do this sort of role in his sleep but chooses to be awake for it.

If I could just chop off the first ten minutes of this movie, I'd consider it cheesy perfection. As it is, it's still a pretty good summer movie worth seeing a time or - if you have enough sand in your dagger - two.

Prince of Persia: Before the Sandstorm -- A Graphic Novel Anthology

Derek McCaw

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