Juggernaut down

The new Pirates — rock ’n’ roll swagger or played-out hit?

May 30, 2007 at 12:00 am

Civil liberties and the writ of habeas corpus have been suspended. Anyone giving aid or comfort to the enemy is a traitor. A long line of accused and impoverished citizens march toward the gallows. Even the children are hung. Welcome to the summer blockbuster as conceived by George W. Bush.

But wait, isn't this a Pirates of the Caribbean movie? Has foppish Captain Jack Sparrow been imprisoned at Gitmo? Watching the beginning of the latest pirate installment you'd think you'd wandered into the wrong Cineplex. Not to worry, Hollywood isn't about to derail a box office juggernaut with political allegory. After the credits we're shuttled to Singapore where our merry band of mercenaries searches for the map that'll help them rescue the irascible Jack Sparrow from the eponymous World's End.

Unfortunately, this (hopefully) last chapter lacks the spark of the first or the goofiness of the second film. Director Gore Verbinski adopts the opening scene's heavy tone for most of Pirates too-long running time and ends up squashing the few delights it has to offer. It seems good things don't come in threes. Spiderman, X-Men and Shrek similarly stumbled at the finish line.

In case you've lost your scorecard, World's End picks up where Dead Man's Chest left off. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and their motley crew have teamed up with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) to rescue Captain Jack (Johnny Depp) from Davy Jones' Locker after being eaten by the Kraken. Why? Because East India Company CEO Lord Beckett (a monumentally bland villain) is in league with the tentacled Captain Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and hell-bent on ridding the world of freedom-loving pirates.

Which sends a politically mixed message if you think about it, since the redcoat corporate baddies use Bush administration tactics to conquer the seas. Hmmm, maybe the film is onto something after all.

Mixed into this seemingly straightforward tale, however, are the Nine Lords of the Brethren Court (think an appropriately useless United Nations of pirates), the redemption of Bootstrap Bill Turner (Will's dad), a romance between Davy Jones and Tia Dalma (who is actually the Goddess Calypso), the delayed nuptials of Will and Elizabeth and a heavily scarred Chow Yun-Fat who's wasted as the Chinese pirate lord, Sao Feng. There's also plenty of hijinks and "Arrr, me mateys" from the over-acting crew.

To say the film is overpopulated is an understatement. With so many irrelevant and poorly developed subplots, World's End becomes an exhausting parade of expository exchanges and unresolved detours punctuated by some impressive action scenes and set pieces. Which wouldn't be so bad if it weren't nearly three hours long and didn't take itself so damn seriously. For chrissakes, it's a Saturday matinee flick based on an amusement park ride. The film has little of the swashbuckling whimsy of the first or Buster Keatonesque silliness of the second.

Worse, amidst the morass of plotlines the love triangle of Jack, Will and Elizabeth goes nowhere. Of course, it doesn't help that even after three films Knightly and Bloom have zero chemistry. What little sexual tension exists between Elizabeth and Captain Jack but, frankly, who cares? World's End's terrifically staged shipboard wedding is all for naught because it's all so unconvincing.

Even Depp's shtick has worn thin. Whereas the first film showed him to be a savvy cutthroat masquerading as a buffoon and the second film cast him as a buffoon masquerading as a great pirate, this final chapter suggests Sparrow is just plain bonkers. Admittedly, it provides for a terrifically Gilliamesque netherworld where Captain Jack is damned to command a crew of doppelgängers on his beached Black Pearl (it's a highlight of the film!) but it doesn't do much for his character's evolution. Over the course of three films, Sparrow has gone from wily plotting to hysterical running to, now, holding meetings. No wonder he's gone mad. This man-of-action has turned into a conniving arbitrator.

Thank God for Geoffrey Rush. The return of the growling Captain Barbossa injects World's End with some much-needed energy and character chemistry. Rush provides Depp with a proper counterweight, playing the true pirate to Sparrow's sashaying clown. It's just a shame screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio didn't give him more to do.

Equally fun is the film's worst-kept secret, stunt casting Keith Richards as Captain Jack's pappy. Richards cameos as a crusty badass and rocks the house. It ain't much of a part but he's so cool that he lowers the room temperature simply by being present.

As might be expected, Pirates delivers when it comes to big budget spectacle. The final 30-minute battle sequence involves The Black Pearl and Flying Dutchman going toe-to-toe while spinning around in a massive whirlpool. While the duels are breathlessly frenetic and impressively choreographed, they're dramatically uninspiring and just plain illogical. While the two ships slug it out, an immense fleet of colonial ships and all the pirate lords sit on the sidelines cheering. How lame is that? Everything up until then had been pointing to a showdown of epic proportions. Did the producers run out of money? Crash their CG effects hard drive?

As with Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End suffers from too much of everything and not enough of anything. I supposed if anyone should be blamed it's Peter Jackson. With the critical and box office success of the sprawling and convoluted Lord of the Rings trilogy it seems everyone wants a piece of the mythological pie.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].