Without playing the Prince of Persia video games — or many others, for that matter — I'm assuming it involves a lot of roof jumping, wall climbing and grunting. Not to mention clattering sabers and stilted chatter about destinies and loyalties.
At least that's the impression left by the movie version, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, one of the more tolerable examples of the joystick genre.
Director Mike Newell assembles a CGI cast of thousands to charge across desert sands before fake green-screen skies, waving weapons and generally acting like the Dark Age hordes they're portraying. In the foreground is an unlikely action hero, Dastan, who's unlikely because the actor playing him, Jake Gyllenhaal, looks like he should carry a surfboard rather than a shield.
Dastan apparently borrowed his childhood from Aladdin, growing up orphaned and hanging around bazaars where action stuff happens. The kindhearted King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) witnesses the boy (William Foster) take a daring stand against bullies and adopts him. Jump to 15 years later, and Dastan is a swashbuckling prince of Persia.
Every action hero needs an establishing battle, and Dastan's is the first and most exciting set piece in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It's also a misguided mission, an assault upon the sacred city of Alamut after spies report sales of WMDs — steel knives and arrows in those days — to Persia's enemies. The reports aren't true, concocted by the king's shifty brother, Nizam (Ben Kingsley), who's just Dick Cheney in silk robes and guyliner.
Considering the fact that Persia later became Iran, the screenplay's allusions to modern headlines is a nifty, if overused, inside joke. Even more obvious is the introduction of Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina), a bandit who runs ostrich races and apparently founded the tea party movement, with his complaints about taxes and an intrusive government. If everyone else delivered with Molina's gusto, this would be a better movie. The fall of Alamut concerns the king since he isn't a crusading kind of guy. But he thanks Dastan and his brothers (Richard Coyle, Toby Kebbell) and accepts a holy man's robe in tribute. Ah, but the robe has been poisoned (huh?) and the king melts into goo, with Dastan framed for murder. He escapes, taking along the Alamut princess (Gemma Arterton) and the supernatural Dagger of Sands.
What does the dagger do? If it's loaded with enchanted sand and you push the jewel on the handle, time rewinds. Whatever happened a few seconds ago, didn't. It comes in handy, especially at the climax after several key good guys have been killed. The dagger is what Nizam was after all along, and it's Dastan's only hope of clearing his name.
From there, the dagger keeps changing hands whenever a fight ends, until the time when there's nobody left angry. Dastan gets trapped in the world's largest sinkhole, battles Hassansin assassins with really cool weapons, and comes out safely with Gyllenhaal's lopsided grin. None of it is thrilling, but Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has a Saturday matinee goofiness that'll go well enough with air conditioning.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.