What a perfect confection the first Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) was, droll and thrilling, marvelously fresh. The unexpected enthusiasm it received demanded a sequel or two, and the people obliged to supply them have my sympathy; it’s hard to do a sequel on “fresh.”
Last year’s fling, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) opted instead for quantity, shoveling great reams of shouted dialogue, incomprehensible plotting, and CGI effects into an overlong framework. It’s hard, I admit, to see what alternatives they had. The original was a creampuff, put together without any intention of sticking around year after year; it wasn’t constructed to bear that much weight.
In the third film, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the franchise does a better job of stepping up to the obligations imposed by longevity. There are sequences that are visually rich and complex, rather than merely busy. There are more attempts at “What’s it all about, Alfie?” moments of reflection. The music is grander and more melancholy, in a way that would have sounded like putting-on-airs in the first film. And the opening scene is surprisingly grim, showing an entire community — men, women, and children — being put to death by hanging, for the crime of aiding pirates. Though this is bizarrely ahistorical (more about that later), it certainly sets a tone.
There are some wonderful visuals in this film; when a vast waterfall, filling the horizon, first swung into view, I was tempted to applaud. A fight scene between two ships twirling in a whirlpool was edge-of-the-seat stuff. (A character swelling up to 50 feet and then exploding into a billion tiny crustaceans was less impressive, and had less effect on the plot than you’d think.) But the film also has the sense to forge some of the wonder from human characters, rather than big battle scenes alone. Nine pirate lords assemble from around the world, with their colorful entourages, to convene the “Fourth Pirate Court,” and it’s so strange and funny and charged with delicious details that alone it’s worth the price of admission. At last there’s a reference to replace the 30-year-old “Mos Eisely Cantina” (the space-alien bar in the original Star Wars); now it will be enough to say, “It was like a Pirate Court in there.”
The three central characters are back, played by the same three stars, and each does solid work, though the magic is wearing thin. Take “witty Jack Sparrow.” It’s become the stuff of legend that Johnny Depp, hired to play this pirate captain in the first film, developed a character so eye-catching that he stole the show from its lovely and much-younger leads, Orlando Bloom (playing Will Turner) and Keira Knightley (as Elizabeth Swann). The original Jack Sparrow was bold and daring and had plenty of pirate in him, but in the sequels he’s been diminishing into a mere rascal. We’re reminded too often that Captain Jack’s highest concern is saving his own skin, which suggests unbecoming cowardice. All that flouncing, preening, wobbling, and grimacing work fine in contrast with stereotypical piratey-ness, they’re great as pepper on a steak. But the steak itself is disappearing, and the character sometimes verges on tedious.
Will Turner, meanwhile, is maturing and gaining confidence and strength as he copes with the challenges of pirate life. I’m sure the script says that’s what he’s doing, but it’s hard to see in Orlando Bloom’s performance. Bloom was perfect as the polite, awkward youth of the first film, who discovers depths of courage when it’s needed, and who is intoxicated by first love. In the current expanded role he’s able to execute everything required, without ever making it personally believable. We register admirable professionalism rather than true character depth. Perhaps someone this young just can’t play a role this seasoned.
Bloom can at least deliver subtle facial expressions when necessary, but Keira Knightley has only one setting: stubborn. (Sometimes it’s stubborn-plus-fuming.) In the first film she was a damsel in distress, in the second she got to do some yelling, and in this one she’s so hung about with swords, guns, and clubs that she clanks when she walks. She’s been promoted under principles of pirate gender equality and never betrays the feminist pirates who came before her; she never adjusts her demeanor to include hesitation, tenderness, mental reflection, or even fatigue. Her motto is “Semper Fight.” There may be arguments for setting Elizabeth up this way, but it unfortunately works against making other elements of her character (her love for Will, or even her lust for Jack) believable.
These characters and the many others in this overpopulated third film are tossed around by a plot that I followed badly. I don’t think, actually, that the plot is that complicated. It’s just hard to catch. Dialogue is either shouted or delivered in a menacing whisper, in any of a half-dozen accents, under the loudest available weather conditions. At 2 ¾ hours, what bit the cutting room dust was no doubt the extra moments that confirm to a viewer that he “got it.” We are repeatedly being told about betrayal, though following who’s betraying whom was beyond my ability, and we don’t have much investment in these relationships in the first place. People in these films don’t look each other in the eye. They circle around and past each other, saying insinuating or wrathful things, but don’t engage in what we’d recognize as conversation. Revelations and reversals have little impact, because the commitments are not firmly set up in the first place.
Chow Yun-Fat is dandy as pirate Captain Sao Feng, Geoffrey Rush is a bit too repetitive as Captain Barbossa, and Bill Nighy again brings a sweet edge of sadness to Davy Jones. Naomie Harris repeats her sly role of Tia Dalma, though we still don’t know who slipped her that practical-joke gum that turns your gums black. Tom Hollander is especially good as Lord Beckett, because he knows how to hold back, a trait not abounding in the Pirates series. When Davy Jones reports to him, sputtering that “I am not a mongrel pup, to come when called,” Beckett quietly observes, “Apparently, you are.” He also gets to inform Jones that his type of supernatural entity is no longer needed in the modern age: “The immaterial has become — immaterial.” Beckett gets some of the best lines in the film. (Jack’s are better, I think, but went by too fast to write down.) He also gets an exquisite exit from the story, gliding in tranquil slow motion down the ship’s deck in a hail of bullets and shattered wood.
Early on there’s an extended sequence that will strike viewers as stranger than anything the series has done so far — a surreal episode that may spring from Jack’s hallucinations, or may be simply what life is like when you’re “At World’s End.” Young folks may find it disturbing (though worse is a late scene when Davy Jones attacks a man’s face with his tentacles; add that to the balance when deciding whether to take your kid.) This surreal sequence has a Terry Gilliam-“Time Bandits” feeling to it, and audiences are likely to split on whether they like it or not (I did).
Less likeable is the absurd opening premise, that the East India Trading Company has gathered so much political power that they can suspend the laws on a Caribbean island and execute anyone who befriends a pirate. Perhaps we need a refresher course in what pirates are. Just as a carjacker steals your car, pirates steal your ship. A pirate ship would come alongside their victim, invade it, then kill and rape and throw overboard at random, keeping cargo and valuables for themselves. They had those skull-and-crossbones emblems for a reason. At one time, travel on the seas meant taking your life in your hands, and if that danger is rarer now, it’s because brave men still fight pirates. A small square white-on-black bumpersticker reading “Pirates are Mean” might be educational.
So the inference that the British government killed civilians in order to save merchandise from pirates is outrageous; governments killed pirates in order to save civilians, and it’s a good thing. (In 1719, the bloody pirate captain Stede Bonnet was hanged in the park that lies a few blocks from my childhood home.) This attempt to recast the underlying story as a conflict between romantic pirates and powerful corporations undercuts the dynamic necessary to give any pirate story a good jolting start. In the first film, the pirates were sexy bad guys; now they’re gentle people with seaweed in their hair. If by the next film they’re marching in protest outside Wal-mart headquarters, it may be earnest, but it won’t be much fun.