"Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" is a satisfying big-budget contradiction — a breath of retro fresh air — from a Hollywood gone nuts over 3-D and Roman numerals. That it's good, given its very unpromising trailer and that it's based on a video game, makes it all the more surprising.
Like the magical time-traveling dagger at the center of its plot, "Persia" cozily transports us back to an innocent era of the action-adventure flick — a time in which stars such as Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn swashed and buckled and did so with a dashing smile and minimal bloodshed. If only Ridley Scott's dour "Robin Hood" had signed up for this same brand of merry moviemaking.
Yes, the special effects in "Persia" are bigger and more outlandish than in the past and, true, our hero — well-played by the immensely likable Jake Gyllenhaal ("Brokeback Mountain") — possesses a body more sculpted than that of his yesteryear counterparts, but the Jerry Bruckheimer production cares more about conjuring the jaunty spirit of Saturday matinee B movies than casting yet another massively numbing special-effects spell.
The spry and judiciously deployed action sequences clue us in that this isn't box-office business as usual with their focus on fancy swordplay (appropriate) and a kicky combo of martial arts and parkour (OK, not so appropriate but what the heck, it's a lot of fun to watch).
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The story is a bit of a surprise, too, far more serpentine than the mush we've been served in previous video-game adaptations like "Doom" and the god-awful "Super Mario Brothers" movie. The dialogue is thick on the cheese and that, too, is part of its homey charm. What isn't charming is the lack of Middle Eastern actors in key roles. We love you, Gyllenhaal, but you're about as Persian as Glenn Beck. You, too, Alfred Molina.
Gyllenhaal puts his athleticism to work as Dastan, an orphan adopted into the duplicitous fold of a 6th-century Persian royal family. All grown-up and buffed-out, the man's-man prince and his brothers ransack the holy city of Alamut for alleged Weapons of Minor Destruction (wink, wink) and come up empty-handed. Or so Dastan thinks, after swiping the aforementioned magical dagger.
After he's blamed for his adopted dad's murder, Dastan and Princess Tamina ("Clash of the Titans' " fiery Gemma Arterton) flee from the scene. The couple go from hate to like to ... OK, you get it. Since there's an easygoing chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Arterton, you don't mind the predictability of the romance.
Much of the movie is taken up with the duo racing through the desert so they can put the dagger back in its rightful place. Along the way they encounter swarms of assassins — led by a creep with a pet viper up his sleeve (cool!) —and a gabby businessman (a humorous Molina, of "Spider-Man 2") who races ostriches and whines about taxes.
Throughout the journey, Bruckheimer and director Mike Newell ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and "Four Weddings and Funeral") temper any instincts to go overboard with the fast-and-furious edits and pumped-up action scenes. They carve out just as much time reveling in the film's classy production values — interior shots of the palaces are visual stunners — and developing tension between Gyllenhaal and Arterton.
That more subtle approach will likely disappoint fans of loud and empty fare like "Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen." But I'll gladly kiss the ground for a popcorn movie like this — one that doesn't bludgeon us for two hours and leave us with a huge headache from wearing those stupid 3-D glasses.
PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ben Kingsley, Gemma Arterton, Alfred Molina
Director: Mike Newell
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action)
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes