Sweet memories are something we all cherish — but it’s those moments just before the fender bender or chain saw mishap that we would pay more dearly to be able to get back.
“If only” are the two little words signifying just how powerless we are to stop the inevitable forward motion of time.
A magic device that bestows such a power is at the center of this week’s new action-adventure from the Disney-Jerry Bruckheimer brain trust, “Prince of Persia.”
Rather than stemming from the latest breakthrough in quantum physics, this device dates back to the sixth century. It’s a dagger with magic sand in its handle that gives this Middle Eastern melodrama the rest of its title, “Sands of Time.”
The power to turn back the clock — well, sundial, actually — is a nifty touch, even though it kind of feels like the screenwriters were working with their fingers crossed. It’s like that other reliable screenwriting cop-out, the dream sequence.
It doesn’t hurt to have a beefed-up Jake Gyllenhaal in the starring role of Dastan. Never one to avoid a risky casting challenge (“Brokeback Mountain” was a hard act to follow), not many action heroes can match him for lovably goofy expressions on his face when he’s not busy leaping from rooftop to rooftop.
For all the computer-generated action, Gyllenhaal and lovely co-star Gemma Arterton as Tamina take inspiration from the early days of silent film. Paying homage to Rudolph Valentino’s classic, “The Sheik,” they remind us that in those days, the eyes were the hottest erogenous zone you could show on screen.
Speaking of eyes, Ben Kingsley wears lots of mascara under his as villainous court adviser Nizam. Toto, I don’t think he’s playing Ghandi anymore. But before you can say “Shizamn Nizam!” it falls to Dastan and Tamina to stop his evil efforts to unleash a sandstorm and end the world.
At least I think that’s what’s going on. I get lost in plots involving gargantuan underground temples crumbling into bottomless pits, faster than you can say “Indiana Jones” or “National Treasure.”
I kept watching “Prince of Persia,” wondering where the story went … until I remembered, hey, that’s right — there never was a story. “Prince of Persia” was adapted from a video game. One fight after another … from rooftops to underground … with increasing levels of difficulty. That’s all, folks.
Many reviewers have observed that Hollywood’s two new releases last weekend — “Sex and the City 2” was the other one — are set in the Middle East. Some managed to find things in the two films to explain why a lot of people in that part of the world don’t like Americans very much these days. It’s not hard to do, actually.
But I was still stuck looking for the story.
Once upon a time, before the Middle East became synonymous with terrorist threats, it enjoyed a hallowed reputation as the cradle of civilization — and an exotic, mysterious realm of great tales. Not just Aladdin with his magic lamp, but Schherezade, for whom telling stories was a life-and-death matter.
In her Persia, the king made it his practice to bed a new wife each night, and then have her killed in the morning. When Schherezade’s night came, she told him a story, not quite finishing it before daybreak. He wanted to hear more. A thousand stories later, the king decided to spare her life and make her his queen.
He had fallen in love with her stories.
They’re not writing ’em like that anymore. Actually, they’re not writing them at all.
The current issue of Entertainment Weekly features “The 100 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years.” Homer Simpson heads the list, with folks like Harry Potter, Jack Sparrow and Thelma and Louise sharing space on the cover. Like a pop culture pop quiz, I went through the edition seeing how many I recognized. Austin Powers, yes … Sue Sylvester, yes! … Dexter Morgan, who’s that?
It was fun, sort of, but there was that old question again: where did the story go?
When did we turn our mythmaking into a David Letterman 10-Best List? In Hollywood these days, the traditional concept of screenplays has been replaced with something called “branding.” It’s all about building your brand — “Sex and the City 2” …“Pirates of the Caribbean 3” — then seeing how many different ways you can repackage it.
The story? No problem, we’ll add it later.
Fewer and fewer people seem to care, but stories are our version of the sands of time. They can’t turn the clock back, but they can stop it, for at least as long as the story is being told. Stories are how we figure out what things mean.
Without them, all we have are lists, and people walking around saying, “If only …”
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.