Monday, July 28, 2003

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl / *** (2003)

"Pirates of the Caribbean" is probably the most ambitious B-movie ever made, a rollicking spectacle of color and adventure that strives continuously to be more than what it could ordinarily get away with. In a few ways, that pitch of energy makes the experience so much more enjoyable than anticipated; in others, it simply keeps the film moving on longer than it has to. In fact, by the time the movie passes the ever-dreaded 2-hour mark, it no longer becomes a question as to how the movie will end, but when it will end. Sword fights, treasure hunting and pirate lingo exist here as visual pleasures that don't know when to cease; they simply move on and on without a regard to time or fuel. The fact that the name Jerry Bruckheimer precedes the credits as executive producer is only the first clue to this distracting misfortune.

I note this problem not to create the impression that "Pirates" is a bad movie, but rather to soften the blow that many will receive by seeing it unfold for themselves. Countless summer movies of the recent years have become victims of their own hype, dying out quickly at the box office not necessarily because they were awful, but because the expectation levels were so high that they became impossible to exceed. Consider the recent "Hulk," Ang Lee's adaptation of the Marvel comic which opened to great numbers but has experienced steep declines in revenue ever since; general reaction was admittedly mixed, yes, but the film's quality was secondary to the fact that the result simply didn't live up to the promises that the promotional campaigns had made. This movie, no doubt one of the most anticipated and advertised pictures so far this summer, fails to be the adventurous giant we hoped for, but is still exciting and worthwhile enough to at least deserve a stable life at the theater without being shunned because of certain disparaging elements.

The movie opens with a young girl aboard a sea vessel singing pirate songs to herself, to which she is firmly told by her superiors that no good can come of having anything to do with those outlaw scavengers who terrorize the seas. Shortly after, the girl, Elizabeth, discovers a young boy floating on a plank in the fog-covered sea, whom she has rescued just before learning that his name is Will Turner, and that he carries a coin bearing the symbol of pirates around his neck. Fearing for his life and safety should the artifact be discovered (either by the members of her ship or the people aboard a shadowed vessel in the distance), she takes it and hides it in her possession, an action that apparently continues years later as we see the grown Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), now primed to be married, slip it on around her neck while she is alone in her room. But what does the coin represent? Nothing is initially said, but when she forgets to take it off and accidentally falls into the bay, the water around her briefly pulsates to life, as if the artifact is calling for a master beyond the horizon to come and regain it.

The night following her fall, a mysterious ship docks in the bay of the mountainside city she calls home, and unleashes a plethora of violence and destruction among its unsuspecting residents thereafter (this ship, not coincidentally, is the same one Elizabeth caught out of the corner of her eye all those years ago). Almost as quickly, a crew from the vessel, which is briefly referred to as the "Black Pearl" in early scenes, is dispatched into the city to apprehend the one who carries the coin. When she is found and taken aboard the ship, however, only then does she realize the extent to what her little thievery years before has done. The coin itself, one of the last remaining of its kind, is the final key in lifting a curse that has befallen all of the Black Pearl's crew members, a curse that has trapped them all in a state somewhere between life and death (they appear as normal pirates through most of the film, and then emerge as decaying corpses by moonlight). Lifting the curse means returning this coin to the chest it was stolen from... and sacrificing the one who carries it as well. This is hardly good news for Elizabeth, but it's definitely worse news for the artifact's previous owner Will (Orlando Bloom), now a full-grown tailor, who resolves to set out for the Black Pearl and rescue the beautiful Elizabeth before the ship's crew splatters her blood across the chest's surface.

Surprisingly, as much as I have just described regarding the premise, none of this is the core focus of "Pirates of the Caribbean." The lead character is actually Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a pirate of sorts who wanders aimlessly into the picture just as the aforementioned events are getting off the ground. What makes him so important, though? Later in the film, we learn that he was once the captain of the Black Pearl itself, a man who barely escaped the curse that befell his comrades but was betrayed by the ruthless Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and left stranded on a desert island a few years before. Now he seeks revenge on the living dead members of his former crew, viewing the situation involving Will and Elizabeth as an ample opportunity to jump back into the lives of those cursed pirates and steal back what was rightfully his to begin with.

Depp has always been one of our most interesting character actors (think for a moment about his more recent stints in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Sleepy Hollow"), but here he has tipped the scales to all new heights. Rather than playing his Jack Sparrow role straight on as most actors would, he supplies the persona with exaggerated qualities of a pirate—a wardrobe that looks as if it were yanked from a dumpsite, slurred speech that suggests he is always boozed up, dialogue that is witty without him aiming for it to be, and a talent for thievery that lacks the precision needed to make necessary escapes from law enforcement (You are without a doubt the worst pirate I've ever seen," one character tells him in an early scene). He is an utter riot in this film, even when some scenes demand his character to be surrounded by background players. You know you are dealing with a phenomenal screen presence when the man in front of the camera can have chemistry with himself.

Ah, but while this is all ravaging on at a constant pace, the movie exhibits levels of energy that sometimes go unchecked on the scales of tolerance. A lot of ambition no doubt went into crafting each and every moment of the large melee confrontations and witty dialogue exchanges, but sometimes the thrust is so relentless that it feels almost pretentious. Sure, what's not to love about two pirates like Jack Sparrow and Barbossa slinging insults between sword fights in a cave loaded with treasure? Nothing at all... until the scenes start lasting five, then ten, and then fifteen minutes longer than they need to. At a whopping 133 minutes total, "Pirates of the Caribbean" just doesn't know when to let up on some of its glossy action sequences; they're enjoyable and effective to a certain degree, but eventually they exhaust the plot elements until we don't care what happens in them.

In terms of plot itself, "Pirates" is satisfyingly silly, but only when it doesn't try to exhibit too many ideas at the same time. Certain narrative passages of the movie contain an incredible amount of rambling, in which story twists fold onto themselves, branch off into new ones, get buried by others, and then emerge again later in the feature as if everything that happened before was irrelevant. Consider a moment when the Jack Sparrow character informs Will, a well-known pirate hater, that his own father was one of the greatest thieves on the sea. The guy is torn, shocked, and refuses to acknowledge the idea, even when he gets into messy confrontations with his opposition. Much later, the movie abandons this concept of denial seemingly without explanation, and Will becomes a full-fledged pirate almost out of instant impulse.

The movie, directed by the highly regarded filmmaker of "The Ring," Gore Verbinski, is the second of three films based on attractions at Disneyland (the first, the incredibly bad "The Country Bears," was released last summer; the third, "The Haunted Mansion," will be out this fall). It's never a good sign when source material is based off of something as flimsy as a theme park thrill ride, but "Pirates of the Caribbean" works on many cylinders. It has a plot with a sense of direction. It has amusing and multidimensional characters. And best of all, it has an undeniable excitement factor that keeps us engaged most of the time. When you accept these elements, it really doesn't matter in the end that the film fails to live up to the enormous level of hype that has been used as its promotional tool. The studio may have overestimated the movie's merit, yes, but that still shouldn't distract anyone from having a good time.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Cast & Crew info:
Johnny Depp: Jack Sparrow
Geoffrey Rush: Barbossa
Orlando Bloom: Will Turner
Keira Knightley: Elizabeth Swann
Jack Davenport: Norrington
Jonathan Pryce: Governor Weatherby Swann

Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Paul Deason, Bruce Hendricks, Chad Oman, Pat Sandston, Mike Stenson; Directed by Gore Verbinski; Screenwritten by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio

Action/Adventure (US); Rated PG-13for action/adventure violence; Running Time - 133 Minutes

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