By now most moviegoers know the basic ingredients of an action-adventure franchise. Start with source material that's already popular (comics, novels), hire A-list talent and aim for a family-friendly PG-13 rating. What you're hoping for is Christopher Nolan's virtuosic "The Dark Knight," though more often you get a mediocrity like "The Incredible Hulk."

"Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," based on the video games by Jordan Melchner, hits almost exactly the right mix. It's fun and inventive, with a fine cast and an old-fashioned Hollywood flair. There's also enough cheeky humor to temper some of the sandal-clad seriousness.

Much of the magic comes from Jake Gyllenhaal, the least likely action hero since, well, Tobey Maguire. As Dastan, an orphan adopted into Persia's royal family, Gyllenhaal has a misfit's sensitivity. It's those soulful eyes, though the swingable, Soundgarden-length hair also helps.

The story begins with Persia invading the holy city of Alamut based on unreliable reports of mass-produced weapons (one of the movie's sly contemporary nods, along with Alfred Molina as a tea party type in a turban).

It turns out that Dastan's scheming Uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) is searching the city for a magical dagger that can turn back time. But Dastan finds it first, and soon he and the dagger's guardian, Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), are taking it on the lam and bickering their way toward love.

Director Mike Newell ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") mainly ignores the mystical mumbo jumbo, focusing instead on some nifty parkour chases and one truly masterful knife-throwing showdown. Is it enough for a franchise? With more than a dozen games and a graphic novel, "Prince" has plenty of potential.


Star Talk: Time for Jake to get in shape

For Jake Gyllenhaal, 29, getting into shape for all the running and jumping, falling and fighting required of his ancient-times action hero in "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" involved rigorous training.

"It was really, really hard," he deadpans, on the phone from Burbank, Calif. "It's really hard being an actor. Getting paid to exercise. . . .

"Yeah, it was a day-in, day-out, pride-swallowing siege that you never fully know about," he continues, quoting loosely from one of his favorite films, "Jerry Maguire." "There's a lot of acrobatics in the movie, and parkour, and sword fighting and martial arts. I would work with gymnasts and I would train in parkour and I'd work with the stunt guys."

Repetition, he says, was key.

"In order to do a sword fight, to really feel believable, and dangerous, doing it over and over and over again was a must. Someone said to me, which I love, 'There's nothing that 10,000 repetitions can't cure.' "

Watching old Errol Flynn swashbucklers also helped Gyllenhaal get into the groove.

"An absolute genius," he says. "He was a massive influence on this part, too." - Philadelphia Inquirer

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