“Tis the season for frivolous fare at the box office. If Hollywood often seems incapable of producing serious films that are not also pretentious, we can be grateful that it still occasionally manages to divert the attention by simply entertaining. That is the case with two mid-summer releases, modestly so with Johnny English and impressively so with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
Johnny English stars Rowan Atkinson as a British intelligence agent. The humor in the film comes from English’s misapprehension, either his misjudgment of his own ability as a spy or his mistaken inferences about the case he’s working. There’s a funny scene where English, thinking he’s searching the offices of Sauvage, is actually in an adjacent hospital; he presumes he’s stumbled onto some twisted medical experiments and begins throwing about references to Dr. Frankenstein and Angels of Death. But the film breaks no new ground in the spy-spoof genre; it calls to mind, and suffers by comparison to, The Naked Gun and Get Smart. Indeed, Atkinson’s performance is not up to the level of performances in either his well known, Mr. Bean or his lesser known but for my money far superior, Blackadder. He is a talented physical comedian and the slapstick is effective in places but the dialogue and plot are so slight that the film relies too often and too heavily on Atkinson’s own response to events, registered especially in his unforgettable face, his oversized nose and ears, the long, coiling mouth, and the glint in the eyes.
For adults, additional humor is supplied by John Malkovich’s performance as Pascal Sauvage, the wicked Frenchman plotting to be crowned king of England and to use that “backward country” as an instrument of financial gain and international influence. As is often the case in his films, Malkovich, who here sports an outrageous wig and even more outrageous French accent, seems more Malkovich than whatever specific part he’s supposed to be playing. Every scene is a wink at the audience as if to say, “Yes, this is John Malkovich, sleepwalking through another role as the blasé bad guy.” And, in this sort of light farce, that approach supplies a few laughs.
On the upside, at just over 90 minutes, the film does not drag; there are enough gags and chuckles and so little in the way of salty language that Johnny English is a film for the whole family.
By contrast, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl comes in at nearly 2 and 1/2 hours and contains some fairly scary scenes (although for a PG-13 it is surprisingly light on sexual innuendo). It is also a much better film than Johnny English, with an enticing plot that twists and turns its way to a happy ending, a remarkable mix of humor and horror, and a number of fine performances.
Based on the Disney theme-park ride, Pirates tells the story of the infamous pirate ship, the Black Pearl, reputed to be populated by demons and a “captain so evil that Hell spat him back.” Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) appears at the outset as a whimsical and apparently good-natured pirate, who has some clandestine connections to the notorious ship, the Black Pearl. Sparrow rescues from drowning the daughter of the Governor of Port Royal, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly). Elizabeth, who possesses a necklace on which the entire plot pivots, is the longtime friend of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who has a familial connection to the Pearl, the details of which he is unaware at the outset. When the actual Pearl arrives at port one “ghastly night,” the stage is set for swashbuckling adventures, slapstick comedy, and doses of horror provided by the hideous physical deformities of the ship’s crew.
While it revives nearly all the conventions of the old pirate movies, it also expresses a bit of irony about its relationship to those films. Pirates toys with the legendary and mythical status of pirate tales. At one point, Jack Sparrow responds to the claim that a pirate attack left no survivors with the wry question, “Where do the stories come from, I wonder?” When Elizabeth expresses skepticism about the existence of pirates, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) counters grimly, “You best start believing” in pirate stories, “you’re in one.”
Barbossa explains to Elizabeth the curse under which his fellow pirates labor, a curse arising from mutiny aboard the Black Pearl. The curse involves Aztec gold and mysterious medallions; to be removed, a sacrificial offering of blood to the heathen gods is necessary. Until the curse is reversed, the pirates will haunt the earth as the undead; cursed for their greed and lust, everything they eat turns to ash in their mouths and every experience of pleasure serves not to “slake their lust,” but to aggravate it. By the end, the film transcends the pagan curse-expiation cycle in the manner of classical comedies, by accenting reconciliation, self-sacrifice, and love realized.
As was made clear in his previous film, The Ring, Gore Verbinski, the director of Pirates, knows how to do horror in an age when the genre often seems exhausted. Pirates tells us something about Verbinski’s range, his ability to direct a successful adventure tale reminiscent of the Indiana Jones series, an adventure tale that nicely integrates a number of genres. In fact, the film is a sort of morality tale — Sparrow insists at one point that the “deepest circle of hell” is reserved for “betrayers and mutineers” — within a horror film within a romantic comedy. Verbinski’s achievements and breadth make one eager for his next product, something that can be said of far too few directors these days.
— Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of Shows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.