As an example of the new pop-cultural crusades Prince of Persia is at once generically insulting and relatively innocuous. Set in the sixth century, the story involves Dastan (Mr. Gyllenhaal), the adopted son of King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), who plucked the wee boy out of the streets to raise the child alongside his royal spawn, Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell). The film, directed by Mike Newell and written by Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard, pays dutiful if cursory attention to the family angle. The father imparts wise words, and the brothers clasp hands and lock gazes, but the fraternal bonds are shredded after they invade a holy city and Dastan is ensnared in a palace intrigue.
Cut and chiseled, his pumped-up pectorals flashing, Mr. Gyllenhaal offers an updated spin on the mysterious Oriental lover of cinematic yesteryear. More butch than the silent-screen god Valentino (best known for playing the Sheik, an Arab rather than a Persian heartbreaker), Mr. Gyllenhaal instead follows — and runs and leaps — in the robustly muscular and acrobatic tradition of Douglas Fairbanks, the silent-film star whose Middle Eastern exploits were aggressively masculine. Granted, the resurrection of a sexpot Middle Eastern hero (even one played by a non-Persian actor) might not seem like progress. But given the strained relations between the United States and Iran, it’s a representation worth noting, particularly since Dastan’s worth is finally measured by his more peaceable actions.
For the most part this is perfectly painless mush. The movie is irrepressibly silly — what were you expecting? — but a few hours of Mr. Gyllenhaal jumping around in leather and fluttering his long lashes has its dumb-fun appeal, as does the sight of Mr. Molina planting a kiss on an ostrich in a big-screen spectacle that’s as much indebted to newfangled technologies as to old-fashioned Hollywood narrative strategies. If nothing else, it’s entertaining to think about how this mash-up of ancient Persian heroics and headline news might sit with the Iranian powers that be. In March 2009 a spokesman for the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, demanded an apology from Hollywood for “insults and accusations against the Iranian nation” over the last 30 years. Clearly, they had no idea they were about to be Bruckheimer-ed.