The success or failure of a summer blockbuster depends on its production values and the famous names on the top line of the poster. For now, the stars and the studio money are orbiting around comic book properties. But with every X-Man except Sunspot and Box already the centerpiece of his own movie franchise, video games will soon become the last unspoiled cultural realm for Hollywood's running-from-explosions-in-slow-motion division. And Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Walt Disney)—starring Jake Gyllenhaal, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and directed by Mike Newell (who helmed 2005's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)—will become the new template for high-gloss summer fare. For now, it serves as a proof of concept: Cartridge-to-celluloid adaptations can be just as dumb and pointless and occasionally amusing as movies based on toy robots that turn into sports cars.
It takes five seconds to learn that Prince of Persia's source material will put up little resistance to Bruckheimerization. There are certain people "connected by an ancient calling that echoes through the ages," we're told via on-screen text. Moments later, a pre-adolescent orphan does parkour to evade bad guys in a crowded marketplace. This draws the attention of the kindly king, who adopts the urchin and makes him a prince. During his teenage years, we assume, Prince Dastan (Gyllenhaal) adopts the typical royal regimen: getting buff, growing out his hair, and learning how to conquer small cities by doing gymnastics and yanking on ropes.
This skill set comes in handy when the prince is accused of murdering his adopted dad with a poisoned cloak and exiled from the royal family. As he wanders through the desert post-regicide, all Dastan has to accompany him are the beauteous Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton)—who's also on the run from the marauding Persians—and a fancy-looking dagger. The three things you need to know about this dagger, in no particular order: 1) you can travel back in time by pushing a ruby embedded in the hilt; 2) it needs to be filled with "magic sand"; 3) a replica is on sale at Toys R Us for $7.99.
Like most movies in which a central story element doubles as a toy tie-in, Prince of Persia isn't overly burdened by ambition. The action sequences meld the ropes and arrows of various Robin Hood flicks, Matrix-style blade dodging, and the temples-secret-rooms-and-avalanches model of the National Treasure series. The repartee between Tamina and Dastan is similarly unoriginal, borrowing from the well-worn pages of the brassy woman vs. manly man insult catalog. There is a faint whiff of cleverness, however, in the parallelism of the search for weapons in the holy city of Alamut and the search for WMD in Iraq. And amid a cacophony of bazaar clichés (squawking chickens, giggling ladies sporting brightly colored handkerchiefs), Alfred Molina's Sheik Amar—a gold-toothed, "slightly dishonorable entrepreneur" (cliché!)—does get off a few good lines about the importance of spreading false notoriety to avoid paying taxes. On the other hand, if Prince of Persia had gone the animation route, his role could have been filled ably by a talking parrot.
As popcorn-movie source material, it turns out, video games lack just one thing: personality. The Marios and Master Chiefs of the world are not people with feelings and motivations but empty vessels designed to plow through a sequence of enemies. It's no surprise that by comparison to, say, Robert Downey Jr.'s winning, witty Tony Stark of the Iron Man movies, Gyllenhaal's Prince Dastan is little more than a set of pecs to fill out a gold-trimmed leather breastplate. This charisma deficit won't stop video-game movies from finding success at the box office. It does mean that, in the absence of a punchy script, they'll be inhabited by dagger-wielding, period-costumed mannequins. Sure, this Prince of Persia runs and jumps, but he doesn't do much of anything else.
Slate V: The critics on Prince of Persia and other new releases