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Ambition Eclipses Suspense in ‘Prince of Persia’

Here’s the dilemma. On the one hand, Prince of Persia is everything you’d expect from a sprawling, two-hour fantasy inspired by a video game: frivolous and predictable, a collection of high-wire set pieces loosely strung together in a convoluted story.

On the other, it is handsomely shot and surprisingly ambitious, with an impressive cast led by a bulked-up Jake Gyllenhaal, whose scrappy hero recalls a better-humored Hamlet, and Ben Kingsley as his beguiling mentor. And there’s the rub.

Directed by Mike Newell, best known for weightier fare like 1997's Donnie Brasco, Persia comes close to scaling the heights of epic adventure to which it aspires. The action is fierce and frantically paced, elegantly choreographed to reflect some of the game’s trademark sequences. Couch jockeys won’t be unhappy.

Gyllenhaal, a brooding type who often lets his expressive eyes do the talking, seems almost jovial here as Prince Dastan, the adopted son of a slain king and wrongly accused of his murder. Ousted from his palace, with a hefty bounty on his head, Dastan sets out to clear his name and reveal his father’s killer, with or without the help of his uncle, Nizam.

Nizam is hardly a stretch for Kingsley, once known for his Oscar-winning performance as the saintly Mahatma Gandhi but whose cold, beady eyes and too-slick demeanor suggest more than a hint of menace. Kingsley played that ambiguity to the hilt in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and in Prince of Persia, we get more of the same. Nobody’s complaining.

The movie borrows as much from Shakespeare as it does from today’s headlines, with a pointed critique of America’s role in the Middle East embedded in its subplot about a royal family waging war under false pretenses. Nizam, of course, is implicated in this as well – he’s equal parts Claudius and Dick Cheney – and for a genre overpopulated by characters as one-dimensional as their video-game counterparts, he is memorably nuanced.

Yet for all its nicely recreated callbacks to the popular 2003 PlayStation title from which Newell takes his visual cues, and the unflagging energy of its stars, Prince of Persia is curiously uninvolving.

It’s not just that the story indulges in too many improbable twists, or that the special effects – specifically, those inspired by the mystical sands that turn back time – seem like afterthoughts. Dastan’s quest, like its foregone conclusion, seems distressingly obvious. For a movie illuminated by flashes of unexpected sophistication, the pedestrian unraveling of its supposed mysteries feels like a copout.