Director: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, and Geoffrey Rush
Runtime: 133 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
There was time, long ago it seems now, when pirate movies were serious business. These were the days of Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, and The Black Pirate. When swashbuckling on the high-seas meant lavish productions, grandiose set pieces, and only the top talent from Hollywood. It’s been decades since pirates were high fashion and romantic actors the likes of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Tyrone Power dawned tights and puffy shirts while sword fighting in a ship’s rigging. A few poor attempts, namely Spielberg’s Hook and Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island, popped up here and there, but never caused enough fuss to unfurl the genre for modern generations. But now, with 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, audiences have reason to love pirates again.
Crowd-pleasing entertainment from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and bankrolled by Disney means one thing: BIG. The stars are big; the special effects are big; the sets and art direction are big. By all accounts, this film shouldn’t work, as it follows the same formula as the 1998 disaster (pun intended) Armageddon. Somehow it’s saved, possibly due to the versatile direction of Gore Verbinski (as opposed to Bruckheimer’s partner in crime Michael Bay). The story is contrived (overly complex), the dialogue falls into adventure movie cliché territory too quick for comfort, and the flat acting of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley rarely impress. And really, how good could the script be, having been inspired by a theme park attraction? But what a ride this film is…
Johnny Depp recalls Keith Richards as Captain Jack Sparrow (for those of us familiar with Depp’s performance in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, though, there’s a touch of Hunter S. Thompson in there too). He’s a pirate captain of no ship; years ago he was commander of the Black Pearl, a massive ship with black sails—the stuff pirate lore is made of. The evil pirate Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Sparrow’s former first officer, mutinied against Sparrow and stole the Black Pearl, leaving Sparrow for dead on an island. Shortly after, Barbossa and his crew of mutineers stole a treasure chest filled with cursed Aztec gold, and became cursed themselves for taking it; though they look normal in daylight, the moonlight reveals their thieving punishment in the form of undead skeletons. If they replace the stolen gold, they will be free of their curse—except all the gold was spent before they found this out. Having recovered all but one piece, now Barbossa and his crew sail the Caribbean, pillaging ports while searching for the one last piece of their stolen treasure.
Of course, this all happens before the movie begins. There’s more… At Port Royal, the young Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley) is expected to marry Commodore Norrington (Jack Conway), but she’s really in love with William Turner (Orlando Bloom), a lowly blacksmith’s assistant and, as we eventually find out, a pirate’s son. Turner and Swan met when they were children; at this first meeting, Swan stole a gold pirate medallion from Turner’s neck—it just so happens to be the very last piece of cursed Aztec gold sought after by Barbossa and his crew. When Swan is kidnapped by Barbossa, Turner reluctantly teams up with Sparrow to get Swan back. But Sparrow has his own plans—to get revenge on Barbossa and recover his captainship of the Black Pearl.
With more holes in the plot than a sunken ship in shark-infested waters, even though the film bombards us with absurdity, not until the very end do we feel that the movie goes too far. We’re drawn into the plot via extravagantly-staged battle scenes and swordplay. But the film’s success lies chiefly on the energy maintained by Depp, whose performance creates one of the great, lovable modern heroes (or possibly anti-hero, depending on how seriously you take all the anti-pirate talk in the movie). Depp’s oddball routine becomes classic within the context of this film, so that even Bloom’s otherwise straight-man Turner impersonates Sparrow, making Sparrow a joke, but a heroic joke nonetheless.
While I’m sure the audience favorite will prove to be Depp’s expressive comic performance, Geoffrey Rush steals the show in true pirate fashion. Rush is probably the only actor that can make the pirate howl “Arrrgggh” sound authentic, and perhaps a little brilliant, completing his full committal with scurvy teeth and an obscenely large feathered hat. Rush’s Barbossa is one of those rare villains, like Hans Gruber from Die Hard or Ian McKellen’s Magneto from X-Men, who is oddly appealing yet wholly villainous in a way that makes the viewer excited whenever he’s onscreen.
I can’t forgive the insanely lengthy title, but I easily resign to enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl for what it is: diversionary entertainment. These days, unfortunately, that means having to shut down your brain and endure some cheesy dialogue amid the Fred Cavens-brand swordplay and exceptional special effects. With how well the production is conceived, by the end, you’ll forget the film’s faults and fall happily into the pirate world, principally sustained by Depp and Rush.