Pirates of the Caribbean

Have your swashes well and truly buckled by Depp and co in this shallow but hugely enjoyable summer romp. Aaaaar!

Released in 2003, certified UK-PG. Reviewed on 10 Aug 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Aaaaar! Hoist the main sail and all that. Hollywood has been somewhat reluctant to touch the hook-handed subject of pirates ever since Renny Harlin rather spectacularly cocked up Cutthroat Island some years back. Time is, as they say, the greatest of healers, and now some bright spark has had the crazy idea of once again resurrecting the genre with Pirates of the Caribbean, based loosely on the Disney theme park ride of the same name. Oh dear.

Or rather 'oh yes', for against all odds Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is actually a riproaring treat of immense proportion, storming out of the summer box office gates with alarming momentum and silencing it's nay-sayers with commendable gusto. Director Gore Verbinski, who last gave us the unusually enjoyable big budget remake The Ring, has once again come up with the crowd-pleasing goods, turning what is essentially a totally vapid Damsel in Distress? rescue story into something altogether more exciting. The real star of the show however is Johnny Depp, who camps it up in quite ridiculous fashion to deliver my candidate for Performance of the Summer.

In a short story-setting preamble (which we viewed in completely the wrong aspect ratio; hats off to the UGC projectionist responsible for that one) set some eight years before the rest of the film we find ourselves on board a British naval vessel with Governor Weatherby Swann (Jonathan Pryce) and his daughter Elizabeth. Cruising through a thick bank of fog the ship happens across the smoking wreck of a merchant vessel recently ripped apart by a large explosion. As the adults survey the scenario, young Elizabeth spots a young boy floating unconscious on a piece of driftwood. The boy is wearing a pirate medallion around his neck which Elizabeth pockets when he is hauled aboard, during the act of which she spots a ghostly black ship with torn black sails disappearing into the fog.

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Leap forward eight years and Elizabeth (now played by the wonderfully be-lipped Keira Knightley) is being hounded by her father to marry the newly promoted Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), but her real feelings lie with Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a young blacksmith who, it happens, is the young man rescued from the water at the start of the movie. Elizabeth still has her pirate medallion which she wears secretly on a chain around her neck for special occasions, such as Norrington's promotion ceremony which her father insists she attends.

During said ceremony at Port Royale, the inimitable rapscallion Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) arrives on a rapidly sinking boat, stepping neatly from the descending mast onto the jetty. He's in town to commandeer (ie. steal) a new ship for purposes as yet unknown. Setting his beady eyes on Norrington's new ship moored out in the bay, an overtly camp Sparrow is forced to cut his plans short when Elizbeth, wearing a ridiculously tight corset, faints during Norrington's proposal and falls from a clifftop into the bay. His somewhat heroic act is repaid by the British fleet who rather kindly throw him in the slammer to await execution by 'short drop and a sharp stop' as Norrington puts it.

Unbeknown to anyone, Elizabeth's untimely dive into the sea has alerted an unnatural force to the presence of her medallion and a strong wing begins to whip up, the skies darkening ominously. Enter the Black Pearl; the ghostly pirate ship Elizabeth saw as a child sailing from the burning wreck of Will's vessel. To cut a long story short, Elizabeth's medallion is the last of many the crew of the Black Pearl must collect to free themselves from an ancient curse. A bloody battle ensues between the pirates and the citizens of Port Royale, during which young Will Turner shows his aptitude with a sword, but not before Elizabeth is kidnapped and taken to Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) onboard the Black Pearl.

A desperate Sparrow persuades Turner he knows where the pirates are headed and will take him to rescue his 'bonnie lass' if he sets him free. Blinded by the foolish woe of a young man's love for pretty girls in tight dresses Turner agrees, freeing Sparrow and helping him 'commandeer' the fleet's fastest ship. So the pair set sail with Governor Swann and Norrington's ship in hot pursuit, Turner seeking to rescue his girl and Sparrow apparently out to settle an old grudge against Barbossa and the Black Pearl.

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It's no secret to anyone who's taken the theme park ride or seen the movie's trailer that Barbossa and his men are actually undead, the light of the moon revealing them to be ghostly skeletons. Unknowingly cursed upon stealing the chest containing the pirate medallions, the crew spent their spoils in a typically pirate-like hedonistic fashion before realising their fate and the fact they would need all 382 of the gold pieces to reverse the black magic. Now that they have the last medallion in their possession, Barbossa and his men must make their way to the chest's resting place and make a human sacrifice to free themselves from the curse. That human must be of pirate descent, and unbeknown to them Elizabeth is nothing of the sort. Rather they need Will, whose father 'Bootstrap' Bill Turner was previously a member of the Pearl's crew and had given his son the medallion to prevent the curse being lifted after a mutiny with which he did not agree.

It all sounds somewhat nonsensical, and indeed it is, but that doesn't stop Pirates being immense fun. Director Verbinski shows a sure and steady hand in keeping tight reign on the proceedings, never letting the grand scale of the movie overwhelm either him or the viewer. Blessed with characters far more interesting than one usually encounters in a big budget scenario, Verbinski wisely spends as much time bonding them with the audience as he does waving swords in people's faces. Will Turner is slightly disappointingly ill-defined, but Elizabeth is a pleasantly feisty and resourceful young lass, Knightley never lowering herself to squeals of terror or the old 'defenseless dame' clich?, and Johnny Depp, well...

Proving himself beyond doubt a hugely versatile actor and a gifted comic, Depp, who generally steers clear of mega-budget studio crowd-pleasers, is an absolute tour d? force who looks like he's done this kind of thing a million times before. Taking the long-haired feminine camp of Errol Flynn to it's logical conclusion, Depp's Jack Sparrow is both effeminate dandy and drunken brawler at once, all limp-wrists and knowing winks. Clearly the man is having a ball, and such is his enthusiasm that Depp consistently carries the audience with him throughout the movie, providing the lion's share of the laughs and presenting a pleasantly flawed anti hero who is at times a pillar of strength and at others a snivelling coward.

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The sword fighting is both pleasantly paced and well choreographed, providing the necessary thrills without swamping the viewer in a sea of mindless action. Turner and Sparrow's introductory rumble in the blacksmith's shop is a pleasantly inventive affair that displays rather entertaining use of scenery interaction as well as impressive blade-waving from the leads. Likewise the sea combat between the Black Pearl and Norrington's ship, the Dauntless is suitably brutal 'cannons and blades' stuff without resorting to the kind of bloodletting that would exclude younger kids.

The movie's CGI is also worthy of note, with some extremely well done sequences involving the skeletal pirates and a ballsy fight between Barbossa and Sparrow that has them jumping in and out of the moonlight, Barbossa assuming human then skeletal form appropriately, that could so easily have been made a hash of were the application of computer trickery not so competent. The vessels are also impressively rendered, mixing set-based on deck action with CG long shots that merge seamlessly to complete the illusion of continuity.

Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is not a movie I plan on rushing out and buying when it arrives on DVD because underneath it's polished veneer it's as vacuous as any other summer blockbuster you care to mention. What it does have that many of it's peers completely lack is soul (take a bow Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life), an essential ingredient when it comes to pleasing the increasingly disinterested masses. Depp is insatiably likeable and has strong support from Knightley, Rush and the others that gels with the action to deliver a hugely appealing whole. Verbinski never for a moment allows anyone or anything to take itself too seriously, with the result that the audience really couldn't care less about believability. This is the best example of a film earning suspension of disbelief I've seen in a long while, and that such an essentially vapid, barren premise works so damn well is credit to all involved. It's for these reasons that although potentially flawed on repeat viewing, Pirates is essential popcorn fodder so long as it remains on the big screen.

Bloom may still be struggling to convince anyone he's a viable leading man, but Knightley is bound for bigger things if the US press infatuation is anything to go by, and Depp is, well, always going to be Depp. One suspects the biggest winner is going to be Verbinski though. With The Ring having garnered a studio-pleasing cost to revenue ratio and Pirates likely to do the same, Hollywood has possibly found it's most versatile commercial lenser since a certain Mr Spielberg showed up a while back. You never can tell.

From my (pirate infested) island of objectivity, I award this movie 4 out of 5 Disko Units. Aaaaaaaar!

Gore Verbinski
Cast list:
Johnny Depp (Jack Sparrow)
Geoffrey Rush (Captain Barbossa)
Orlando Bloom (Will Turner)
Keira Knightley (Elizabeth Swann)