If you absolutely must see a new-release movie this weekend, your choice is between Sex and the City 2, a reductive and insulting view of femininity-as-commodity laced with a stunning undercurrent of reflexive American cultural superiority that creaks along for 146 unending minutes; or you can see something bad. Okay, fair is fair, I'd be hard-pressed to say in honesty that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (title begging for a sequel, much?) is the "worse" of the two movies, but I'll say this much: SatC2 left me frustrated, bored, and angry, but there was barely enough to Prince of Persia to keep me from falling asleep amidst all the slow-motion sword fighting and things going up in flame and about ten dozen other things that you can see pretty much every other weekend during any given summer.

Even so, it's probably the best movie ever based on a video game, although its competition for this title are such legendary works as Street Fighter, Wing Commander, the Resident Evil series, and the work of director Uwe Boll. None of those films had the fortune to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, best known in summer tentpole circles for shepherding the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise from plotless theme park ride to pop culture behemoth. Doubtlessly, that's why Walt Disney Pictures felt so willing to hand over a rumoured $200 million to Bruckheimer to make Ubisoft's delectable action game (which was, by no means, as plotless as a Disneyland boat ride) into a feature; and it's also doubtlessly why the end result feels so much like a distaff Pirates movie, with Jake Gyllenhaal as Orlando Bloom, Gemma Arterton as Keira Knightley, and Alfred Molina as Johnny Depp, but in an infinitely smaller role. Yessir, it's like watching Pirates of the Caribbean with all the Jack Sparrow parts taken out. Are you salivating yet?

Jordan Mechner's original video game story was taken apart and rebuilt with very little left intact other than the Persian setting and the game mechanic - I'm sorry, the "narrative hook" - by Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro (whose previous two collaborations were the sleepy war movie The Great Raid and the hellaciously bad horror film The Uninvited) and Boaz Yakin (who happily has more than two writing credits, although the most prominent one by far is for the 20-year-old The Rookie), and here's what ends up on screen: in the mystical and unendurably exotic land of Persia (modern-day Iran), a noble king (Ronald Pickup) with two sons adopts an athletic street urchin named Dastan (played, as a grown-up, by Gyllenhaal). Many years later, the eldest prince, Tus (Richard Coyle) leads an army against Persia's enemies, stopping briefly on the advice of his uncle Nimez (Ben Kingsley) to sack a city that may be supplying weapons to those enemies. After the sack, Dastan finds a magic dagger that allows the wielder to re-wind time using a supply of magic sand, but then he's framed for killing his father and must escape with the city's angry princess/priestess Taminia (Arterton) across miles of desert, and by a commodius vicus of recirculation everybody ends up in the same place, the secret villain is exactly who you knew it had to be from the first second he opened his mouth, and Dastan has to save the world from the angry power of the gods, which is held in check only by the dagger. Somewhere in there is, I think, an argument for why it would be bad to go to war in the Middle East over non-existent weapons, but the film is not at all eager to pursue that line of thought, nor does it do much with Molina's ostrich-racing gangster who spits out Tea Party one-liners about dodging taxes. But at least it would seem that one of the writers once picked up a newspaper, probably by accident, and hasn't been able to completely shake the experience.

Mainly, the film is just an excuse to watch as Gyllenhaal's stunt double does all sorts of acrobatic shit to knock out enemies. Which happens over and over again over 116 minutes, and it's stupefyingly repetitive, and then it ends. Happily, without the threat of a sequel, although the mere existence of a subtitle is all the more threat we need on that count. At any rate, watching a little man surrounded by CGI flipping around and clambering up walls is a hell of a lot less fun than making the little man do those things yourself, which makes the cinematic Prince of Persia unsurprisingly a greatly shallow experience next to the game from which it was derived, although since the game Sands of Time came out a whole console generation ago, you might possibly have a hard enough time finding it that watching the movie is a better deal.

As far as adventure movies go, though, Prince of Persia is more or less a washout - uninspired even when it's baldly ripping-off better movies. A great many years ago, Mike Newell was if not a great director, at least a credible one, overseeing the pleasing romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral among others. In the last ten years, the only thing he's done of any real merit was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which looks in retrospect like the work of a man who knew how not to fuck up all the good things Alfonso Cuarón had done in the franchise's previous entry, and had a better script to not fuck it up with. Certainly, he brings absolutely nothing of value to Prince of Persia, other than making it clear just how valuable Gore Verbinski and Jon Turteltaub really are for bringing Jerry Bruckheimer's high-concept cash machines to life. The performances are, to the last, only as functional as they need to be, and the camera is set up in front of whatever is happening with little or no thought for how to make things interesting, suspenseful, or just plain spectacular (he manages to make a hilltop city ridiculously out of proportionate size look flat and bland) - not when he can bathe everything in a uniform shade of bronze and call it a day. Worst of all, he indulges constantly in a computer-aided speed ramping trick, so that just about every single action performed in the movie is punctuated by a sudden slow-down like the movie just hit bullet time. Perhaps this is meant to recall a similar function in the game; it certainly increases the degree to which it looks like a game. It also increases the degree to which the film is complete bullshit, and it gives us lots of nice, long looks at how much of the CGI isn't remotely as convincing as we might prefer it to be.

Seriously, it's inconceivable that this film cost $200 million - there aren't any prominent actors besides Gyllenhaal, Kingsley and Molina (Gyllenhaal, by the way, is so terrible it hurts, and not only because his British accent is dreadful and he looks about as Persian as he does Inuit), and maybe Arterton who is at least vaguely recognisable from having played the exact same character in this spring's equally vapid Clash of the Titans remake. The sets and costumes aren't any bigger or more elaborate than in any given "set in the mystical Near East" adventure, none of which are exactly this expensive. The effects are par, no more. Even the text used for the opening exposition crawl looks cheap: it's in Papyrus, one of the most overused typefaces in the modern world, and putting it at the beginning of your big old summer movie makes it look exactly like you had the nice lady who does the church fliers making your big old summer movie instead of professional movie makers.

It looks cheap, it's put together in a slipshod way that makes the adventure seem unexciting, makes the characters seem even more stiff and uncharismatic than the script does, it's not pretty, it's not fun - really, Prince of Persia doesn't do a single damn thing right, except fail to be as unspeakably miserable as you'd have guessed from the concept. Not flashy enough to offer a simulation of entertainment, and not sturdy enough to offer genuine entertainment, it's just an exercise in watching events happen in a certain order, although that order doesn't even make a great deal of sense: there's hardly enough plot to support as much running time as the movie has, and to make up the difference there's a lot of shuffling characters around in arbitrary ways to make sure that everyone with a name can be present for the big shoot-out at the end, which is unsurprisingly put together with no kind of joy or energy at all (though it is unexpectedly violent - comfortably PG-13, but bloodier than the Pirates films). Usually, the excuse for these mindless CGI-propelled wastes of time is that they're "fun", but that excuse doesn't have much to offer when a movie is as effectively mechanical and anti-fun as Prince of Persia.

4/10