‘Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’ plays it safe, and falls short

When chancing upon a jewel-encrusted dagger, it is always a good idea to push the button at the end of the handle, given the chance that it may prove to be a portal through time.

This is one of the lessons learned in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” a new Disney attempt to launch a “Pirates of the Caribbean”-like franchise. The dagger in question is at the center of this sword-and-sandals picture.

It’s based not on ancient legend but on a video game. The Persian prince is Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), who was born of humble origins but adopted by a wise king.

He comes across the magic knife after helping his royal brothers storm a gated city, a pre-emptive act of war justified by weapons of destruction rumored to be hidden inside, although this turns out to be false intelligence. (Looks like one of the movie’s many screenwriters was having fun with current events.)

A vanquished princess (Gemma Arteton) would very much like the dagger back, a nomad bandit (Alfred Molina) also seems interested in stealing it (he’s a nomad bandit, after all), and the king’s brother is not to be trusted — because the king’s brother is played by Ben Kingsley.

Some parallels with the “Pirates” franchise measure the ways “Prince of Persia” falls short. For one thing, the first “Pirates” movie had a great sense of play; like a ship lurching at sea, it moved from comedy to adventure in big heaving motions.

And it had a talented actor, Johnny Depp, going off the leash and creating something splendid. Here, Jake Gyllenhaal, mostly known for serious roles in nonaction movies, seems reluctant to let the silly out.

His love scenes with Arteton (the slightly unnerving actress from “Clash of the Titans”) are as wooden as any average TV show.

Gyllenhaal has bulked up to perform the physical requirements of an action movie, which include scaling castle walls and riding down a sand avalanche, but that’s not enough to carry a story line.

The initial battle has ingenious stunts, but then the picture goes into an extended lull. Veteran director Mike Newell (he did the “Goblet of Fire” Harry Potter chapter) perks it up again toward the end, although the various time-tripping possibilities afforded by the magical dagger result in a rather unsatisfying conclusion.

The whole thing feels very safe, as though everybody involved knew they couldn’t blow it with a future Disney franchise resting on this. That kind of cautiousness can lead to blandness — which certainly describes this tame enterprise.

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