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What Went Wrong with Prince of Persia

What Went Wrong with Prince of Persia

I’d rather be watching HBO. That’s my new T-shirt mantra. This holiday weekend I’ll lay odds, sight unseen, that watching the third installment (HBO Saturday 9 PM) of writer Peter Morgan’s Tony Blair trilogy, The Special Relationship, about the British ex-prime minister’s relationship with then-president Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid) will prove more satisfying than the miscast, over-wrought $200-million Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or the shoddily written and executed Sex and the City 2, which hordes of women will flock to see, nasty reviews be damned.

Actually, Jerry Bruckheimer and Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia is not terrible: it’s a well-made, fun, featherweight $200-million-plus B-movie adventure, Aladdin meets Raiders of the Lost Ark with steals from Lawrence of Arabia. And it’s something that studio execs dread: the attempted launch of a franchise, for which Disney has adopted the “brand” of an established videogame that is recognized by a fragment of the moviegoing audience. So does it mean anything as a title? Well, because Bruckheimer took a Disney e-ride, Pirates of the Caribbean and turned it into a huge franchise, one can see why the studio would hand the reliable producer some play money.

But judging from the reaction on my Twitter feed, if Prince of Persia plays better for me than its target male vidgame demo, then it shouldn’t cost $200 million.

And Disney insisted on starring Jake Gyllenhaal. I understand why his agents want to broaden his appeal, but Gyllenhaal is miscast as an action hero. In some ways this reveals the current void in leading men with enough weight to carry larger-than-life fantasy fare. (James Cameron fought with Fox over casting unproven Sam Worthington over Gyllenhaal in Avatar.) Although Disney knows that Gyllenhaal has never carried a big movie, at least he’s a known commodity. And he was extraordinary opposite Heath Ledger in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, which was a word-of-mouth hit. But the ensembles Brothers, Jarhead, Zodiac and Rendition were all box-office disappointments.

In Prince of Persia Gyllenhaal is charming and physical–with a boost from stuntmen and digital effects–in the role of a wily, athletic young prince who is scooped off the street as a kid by a kindly king. But he is saddled with a Cockney accent in an ensemble of Brits (Alfred Molina is the movie’s comedic stand-out). I suspect that many of Gyllenhaal’s young female fans would rather see him in a more contemporary, naturalistic mode.

You could see this summer misfire coming a mile away. The risk when you aim for the widest possible demo is that you wind up appealing to no one. This movie is PG-13, family and women-friendly, with scads of stunts and effects with male appeal. But it has no edge. It reminds me of the Paramount movie Stardust, another tweener that wound up with no target niche. It was neither genre fantasy nor family adventure. But in that case, it wasn’t supposed to be a summer tentpole.

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