It’s an interesting if not exactly encouraging mix. First you have the Disney studio, the long-running bastion of family fare, making its first PG-13 film. Not that Disney hasn’t long been in the business of supplying nightmare fuel for the tots, as anyone who saw Bambi or Fantasia at an impressionable age — say 5 years old — could attest. But this new pirate-ghost story film reaches a level of live-action grisliness and mayhem (though not, of course, sexiness) that nudges the envelope without quite pushing it. Which is to say that the studio hasn’t entirely popped its cherry: If somebody dies by the sword here, and many do, there’s no blood in sight, since the blow is delivered outside the frame. The studio has remained true to the genre, supplying plenty of extras to be offed while keeping the action as kinetic and sanitized as an old Errol Flynn movie.
Then you have producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Con Air, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor), the cinematic Antichrist, a hands-on guy who believes that it’s impossible to underestimate the length of the audience’s attention span and who favors impatient editing and multiple money shots piled on to a numbing degree. And finally, there’s director Gore Verbinski, who helmed the boring muddle The Mexican and the more interesting muddle The Ring, and who at this point is more stage manager than stylist, which is a suitable trait for this kind of film. One can only speculate when dispensing credit for a project this size, but it seems as though Verbinski has held Bruckheimer’s more panting instincts in check. The movie is top-heavy with long, repetitious fights, but there’s no speed-freak editing — which would make him a stronger directorial personality than Michael Bay, or at least a little less craven.
Pirate movies, being intrinsically low-tech, are in no danger of becoming a revived genre, or at least not part of our regular summer blockbuster fare. Pirates of the Caribbean, though, has a good shot at commercial success, since its supernatural aspect allows for some cool effects, making it seem like both a throwback and up-to-date. It’s entertaining without being particularly good, moving along for the most part with a brisk predictability. Its somewhat convoluted plot, whose details I’ll let other reviewers bore you with, centers around the efforts of the evil Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush — you can tell he’s evil because he has incredibly bad skin) to undo the title curse that has left him and his crew in an undead state. They’re normal looking by sunlight, but ghastly skeletons when exposed to the light of the moon.
Barbossa’s archnemesis is Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), the movie’s reluctant hero and comic center. Depp’s Sparrow is elegantly wasted, a dissipated soul whose preternatural good luck is signaled by a Chaplinesque bit of business toward the film’s beginning when he walks off his sinking ship just as its mast comes level with a convenient dock. With his seedy glam look (this comes close to being another of his cross-dressing performances), his unsteady gait and general air of being comfortably stoned, there’s more than a little Keith Richards in Depp’s performance, as well as some of Dudley Moore’s Arthur in his unsteady vocal inflections. It’s an audacious performance, certainly the most original thing in the movie, and when he’s off-screen the whole enterprise drops to a more tepid level.
Geoffrey Rush surprises as well, but in a negative sense. Rush is a great ham and one would have thought he would excel in this setting, but so much about the movie is over-the-top that his grand gesturing and hoarse bellowing are subsumed by the baroque mise-en-scene — it’s difficult to chew the scenery when the scenery’s chewing you. Then there’s the demographically necessary romantic subplot, between a blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) and a governor’s daughter (Keira Knightley) who’s betrothed to someone more suitable to a girl of her social status, but he’s a cold fish and we all know where that’s headed.
But knowing where things are headed is part of the game, and Pirates is a pleasant time-killer with one very good, very eccentric performance. If it’s a success, a sequel is planned — and if Depp returns, I think it would be worth seeing. At least on cable.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].