Sucking at video games is a childhood rite of passage. Whine, cry, curse if you must, then wipe that anger clean with a quick slap of the reset button.
That might improve gaming aptitude, but a plot device that regularly permits its characters to try again can’t help Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time — more proof that no video game has yet yielded a good movie.
It’s not a bad approach, as Persia is lighter in spirit than the torturously serious Clash of the Titans remake, and, for a time, it flirts with being a dumb-fun ABC Family version of Gladiator.
But the script’s abuse of a magical dagger that turns back time turns Persia into Click with swordplay, and its dialogue, acting and thrills are as musty as Sega Genesis manuals collecting basement dust.
The problem begins with woeful miscasting: Jake Gyllenhaal as someone of any ethnicity other than So-Cal Caucasian. Hunky but humorless, a beefed-up Gyllenhaal stumbles through his inconsistent all-purpose British accent so often his scenes seem destined to end as outtakes.
Dwayne Johnson is 38, and it’s a demotion from scorpion king to Persian prince, but he’d at least flex muscles to smile and wink. Even Brendan Fraser, the Job of CGI extravaganzas, could school Gyllenhaal in how to act alongside things that aren’t really there.
Gyllenhaal is Dastan, a street urchin embraced by Persian royalty as a boy after King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) admires his bravery during a street fight. Whatever interest director Mike Newell — for whom this is less a film than a retirement parachute — shows in the thematic triumph of mercy over ambition is quickly vaulted by Dastan’s plethora of parkour stunts.
Even by that discipline’s loose-limbed standards, Persia is ludicrous. Changing direction mid-jump like Mario is ridiculous in a movie when there’s no spatial idea of how someone has outrun, out-jumped and out-slid acres of quicksand.
Showing either cojones or naivete, Persia inserts Iraq metaphors in a land that became Iran — as Sharaman sanctions sacking the city of Alamut for a cache of weapons that turns out to not exist. After serving up the nubile Alamutian princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) to Dastan as a wife, Sharaman dies after donning a poisoned vest, offered to him as a gift by Dastan.
Ah, but Dastan has been framed and goes on the lam with Tamina. Could it have been one of Sharaman’s sons (Richard Coyle and Toby Kebbell), or his warhawk brother (Ben Kingsley)? Only to children will the answer prove the least bit surprising.
Clearly, the bad guy wants what Tamina’s trying to protect and what Dastan claimed as a spoil of war — a sand-filled dagger that turns back time when a jewel on its hilt is pressed. To prevent apocalyptic abuse of its power, Dastan and Tamina team with an ostrich-racing entrepreneur (Alfred Molina) and his knife-throwing cohort (Steve Toussaint, who must have lowballed Djimon Hounsou’s price point).
Gyllenhaal and Arterton do conjure chemistry, and Molina brings barrel-chested brio to a role that is, essentially, Jack Sparrow in a turban. But given the script’s dearth of humor, Molina must have improvised all his good quips.
Such laziness abounds. Facial scarring on spooky Hassansins — assassins with names sounding vaguely “brown” — looks applied from a tube of closeout makeup from a strip-mall Halloween outlet. And one push of the dagger erases the coolest threat — projectile vipers.
At least Stephen Sommers’ Mummy films let their creatures raise hell before removal from the picture. Instead, all we get are depressed ostriches, and Prince of Persia is the biggest bomb to prominently feature those flightless birds since Leonard Part VI.