Sunday, July 1, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End / **1/2 (2007)

There is a scene early on in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” when Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) finds himself barking orders at a crew of insubordinate misfits that, for the lack of a better description, are also exact physical replicas of himself. The scene appears as such because Sparrow is the most recent arrival of that elusive but immense vacuum of space best known as Davy Jones’ Locker – the world that exists beyond the borders of our own – and its emptiness becomes a podium for his eccentric persona to absolve itself of lunacy and reasoning, the only two things that he was still proficient at on this side of the map. Because he is the isolated subject of this multi-faceted sequence in which one Sparrow argues with hundreds of others, we half-expect Depp to be liberated enough to be able to leap at the material with zeal and spirit. But the enthusiasm never emerges from his work; nor, for that matter, does anything resembling general interest or patience. It is a sad and potentially alarming warning sign for any movie when its most stimulating screen talent begins to show signs of being bored with the material, but it is even more startling when it happens to a franchise as elaborate as this, especially so late into the story arc and with such a distinctive and memorable character at the forefront.

Leaping off the screen like it has no inclination to make any effort other than what is required of it of a passing grade, “At World’s End” is a sweepingly ambitious movie that, alas, takes too long a time making its point, and far less effort actually doing something meaty with the opportunities given to it. The picture is the third in an ongoing series of flicks helmed by director Gore Verbinski, whose first outing in this franchise, “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” was so monumental a sleeper hit for Walt Disney Studios in 2003 that follow-ups were a given right from the start. At least, to some extent, the director knew he was getting into; his follow-up, “Dead Man’s Chest” from last summer, was not only more amusing and enthusiastic than its predecessor, but also more concise, more dedicated to the premise, and more aerodynamic when it came to stable characterizations and well-paced storytelling. His knack for streamlining what worked so well with the first film into a more exciting follow-up is an advantage not too unlike what the Wachowski brothers did for their “Matrix” franchise, but where both of them fail lies in their tendency to over-reach. In both instances, the second and third chapters of each sage were filmed back-to-back, a scheme initially lauded for its quick turnaround on multiple projects, but a scheme nonetheless that burdens writers who are essentially dividing one narrative into two halves without making them seem fragmented or disjointed in the process. Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, needless to say, have not learned from the mistakes of the “Matrix” boys; whereas the second movie was filled to the brim with exciting sub-plots and internal conflicts that built great promise with each passing action, this third chapter spends way too much time tying up loose ends and resolving early conflicts for it to be regarded as an isolated product. Even when it wants to try something new with the premise, the film feels as if it’s doing so just for the sake of creating distinction between it and the previous endeavor, however half-hearted it may be.

At the end of its predecessor, the fate of pirates became something of a tug-of-war, as the sinister and determined Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), leader of an East India trading company, assumed control of the much sought after heart of Davy Jones, and the swashbucklers’ most notorious shield, Jack Sparrow, was taken out of this world and into another by a sea creature best known as the “Kracken.” As this one opens, newly-revived pirate villain-turned-asset Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) assumes direction of the Black Pearl and its crew, who have resolved to set off and recover its original owner from beyond the shores at World’s End. Why? Certainly not because anyone on board actually misses Sparrow or found him irresistible, mind you; in truth, his existence in this world becomes a necessity when it is revealed that the nine pirate lords (one of them being him) must gather in order to release the spirit of Calypso, goddess of the seas, back to the ocean. Such is an action seen by Barbossa as the only logical opposition to Davy Jones and the growing threat he maintains against pirates; Jones is not only a feared creature among pirates now, but also an assassin, and under the authority of the ruthless Beckett he may also very well be single-handedly responsible for the imminent extinction of all things swashbuckler-related.

That this would also spell out the end of a franchise for a studio way too eager to let their most popular movie series end at a third chapter makes most of what goes on in “At World’s End” all the more transparent. The movie is agonizingly obvious, sometimes cluttered beyond belief with the way it likes to plant all these new seeds of possibility in the narrative fabric, and rather tedious in how it resolves certain solutions with little more than brief observations or mere mentions in dialogue. Consider a scene in which the Keira Knightley character makes the realization that her father has passed on into the netherworld; the sequence is great in the way it plays off-beat with the approach to direct tragedy, but the prospect of it being anything more than an additive is excelled by the movie’s arrogant hidden agenda. Here, things that happen in the margins are just fill-in for the bigger conflict, which is just as much about saving pirates from their biggest challenge as it is about creating a wide-open scenario that allows them to be stars of one, if not several, more sequels. Nothing is more supercilious than a movie with that amount of self-importance.

The actors plod their way through the material like they are waiting for paychecks. Orlando Bloom, whose slight improvement as an actor in the past four years does little in the way of shielding him from us detecting his obvious boredom, is reduced to mere crutch status by the screenplay here, while his would-be-bride, played by Keira Knightley, handles the struggle of an attraction against that of a true love like it is even less interesting than the story makes it out to be; when William asks her to marry him during a sword-fight towards the end, we half expect her to tell him she’s too apathetic to say yes or no. Of all the talented thespians that populate the celluloid, only Geoffrey Rush seems to be having any fun. His Barbossa, the antagonist of the first film who is brought back to life to resolve two important narrative dilemmas, is a quirky and coarse person who engages in parley that is often over-the-top in its wittiness, and whose persona takes full advantage of the off-beat and wacky mannerisms that are of standard to this material. Watching him eases a lot of the frustration felt from seeing his co-stars underperforming, and I would gladly sit through a handful of additional “Pirates” films just for the sake of seeing Rush upstage everyone he is surrounded by again.

The climax, at least, is rousing. On the brink of their darkest hour, our heroes and their team players aboard the Black Pearl perform a challenging face-off with the villains of the Flying Dutchman within a whirlpool, an act that allows both frontal and background conflicts to overlap onto one another and create a multi-faceted beast of a peak. Some of those 20 minutes are the most exhilarating you will experience in this franchise, and their excitement is interspersed with confrontations, dialogue, personal realizations and last-minute decisions that test the characters in monumental ways. At the end, immediate reflection tells us that these positives are noteworthy enough to balance out several of the negatives, but even by those estimations, the movie cannot ignore its gravest mistakes. The end result is neither bad nor impassable by any stretch, but the strikes against it leave us rather weary about wanting to go any farther on the voyage. Pirates may be tireless in their ongoing quests for booty, but after enduring this last one, a few of us might be eager to stay off the open seas for a while.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action/Adventure (US); 2007; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action/adventure violence and some frightening images; Running Time: 168 Minutes

Johnny Depp:  Jack Sparrow
Geoffrey Rush: Barbossa
Orlando Bloom: Will Turner
Keira Knightley: Elizabeth Swann
Jack Davenport: Norrington
Bill Nighy: Davy Jones
Jonathan Pryce: Governor Weatherby Swann
Tom Hollander: Lord Cutler Beckett

Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Bruce Hendricks, Peter Kohn, Eric McLeod, Chad Oman, Pat Sandston, Mike Stenson; Directed by Gore Verbinski; Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio

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