For millennia, the West has accepted the ancient Greeks as exemplars and their Persian rivals as barbarians. As 300 demonstrated, the version of their story handed down by the Greek historian Herodotus still rules.
Comes now the Pirates of the Caribbean team of Walt Disney Pictures and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who clearly aren't cowed by 2,500 years of pro-Greek tilt. They've made a film about a swashbuckling Persian hero, derived from a source somewhat less venerable than Herodotus: a video game that dates to 1989.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time isn't all video-game action. It also features smatterings of history, British stage veterans and imposing scenery -- though it's Morocco, not Iran. Still, the movie might as well be set in Narnia.
Our hero is Dastan, a name the film implicitly links to the word "destiny." He's introduced as an orphan scamp, evading soldiers by bounding through the local bazaar. King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) is so impressed by the boy's simian dexterity that he adopts him, making him equal with his sons.
Dastan grows into a man, played by a beefed-up, often shirtless Jake Gyllenhaal. Along with the muscles, the actor has also grown an English accent, which is passable but clashes with his aw-shucks American demeanor.
When Uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) urges an assault on the holy city of Alamut, the king's biological sons assent. Dastan is reluctant, but uses his -- that is, Gyllenhaal's -- new parkour training to take the city with a minimum of casualties. Inside the city walls, Dastan finds a magical dagger, whose protection is the sacred duty of feisty Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton, who's barely had time to change out of her Clash of the Titans outfit and into this film's priestess/belly-dancer number). The dagger is essentially a game controller, complete with a red button on top that, when pushed, reverses time.
Then King Sharaman is murdered, and Dastan is fingered for the crime. He and Tamina take flight, bickering as each tries to possess the dagger, which is also sought by the story's archvillain. Dastan and Tamina's adventures lead to the possible destruction of the world -- and their first kiss.
The script, clearly written by committee, introduces a few genuine elements: Alamut was a real city, although not a holy one, and Dastan and Tamina are pursued by the Hashshashin, the cult of assassins whose name may be related to "hashish." Those two reference points put the story between the 8th and 14th centuries, after the rise of Islam. Yet the movie, with understandable timidity, doesn't mention that religion. Dastan invokes "God" and Tamina "the gods," but no deities are named.
The characters spend less time revealing their own era than riffing on recent events and contemporary attitudes. Alamut is targeted in a search for nonexistent weapons (of mass destruction, presumably). And the film's comic relief, an ostrich-racing mogul played by Alfred Molina, is a desert libertarian who can't shut up about Persia's high taxes and useless bureaucrats.
Director Mike Newell is best known for such actor-driven British successes as Dance with a Stranger and Four Weddings and a Funeral, although he did enter the CGI realm with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He handles the action scenes competently, even if the editing is frenzied and most of the special-effects sequences less than special.
What Newell can't seem to do is give Prince of Persia a unifying style, tone or purpose. The film moves well, but doesn't show any motivation other than getting to the next game level.