It’s always a pleasant surprise when a forgotten genre suddenly returns from the dead and enters the awaiting arms of a respective audience – but then considering Pirates Of The Caribbean is all about murderous sea criminals who are cursed to live forever, maybe be shouldn’t have been so shocked.
But then again, how could we not have been? After all, Disney hiring Johnny Depp to star in a movie based on their legendary Disneyland pirate ride that was from the producer of Top Gun and the director of The Ring may be one of the most random projects ever put together by a major studio and yet years later, the continuing misadventures of Captain Jack Sparrow managed to haul in as much box office booty as the infamous scoundrel himself. Ok, sure, so subsequent adventures may not have lived up to the standards set by the insanely charming original – but Sparrow’s maiden voyage still holds up as a prime slice of swashbuckling daring-do.
Back in the days of pirates and presumably devastating cases of scurvy, governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann frets over corsets, her feelings for orphan blacksmith Will Turner and the ract that her father expects her to marry the dashing commodore Norrington, but matters are greatly complicated when a gold medallion she took off Will when he was discovered in a shipwreck as a child summons a cadre of cursed pirates led by the flamboyant Captain Barbossa, who sail in to Port Royal in Jamaica to claim the item back to help lift their supernatural torment. You see, thanks to their backstabbing ways, Barbossa and his crew haven’t been able to eat or feel anything for years despite still suffering from hunger and thirst and the moonlight shows them for what they truly are, skeletal wraiths, who mistakenly believe that its Elizabeth’s blood they need as the final ingredient to free them from their torment.
Into this bubbling cauldron of shenanigans stumbles the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, a seemingly bumbling wild card who effortly sews chaos and confusion wherever he goes who is also searching for Barbossa thanks to a string of double crosses which cost him his beloved ship, The Black Pearl. Teaming up with the previously pirate-hating Will to “commandeer” a ship (much to the chagrin of Norrington) and the two head to the lawless town of Tortuga to scavenge together a fittingly ramshackle crew to get Elizabeth and the Pearl back.
However, in the flurry of double crosses (and double double crosses), can Will and Jack get to Elizabeth in time before Barbossa realises he has the wrong person to lift his immortal curse?
There are many reasons why The Curse Of The Black Pearl works as well as it does and we’ll get to those soon enough, but our first stop has to be with Johnny Depp, who cemented his transition from indie leading man to legit Hollywood star while haphazardly mincing his way through the entire enterprise, nailing every single one liner with a slurred, Keith Richards brogue and peering at everyone from beneath a mountain of guyliner as the instantly iconic Jack Sparrow. He’s the perfect antidote to the admittedly rather pretty, but bland main couple of Kira Knightley and Orlando Bloom as, unlike them he’s free to flounse around the place, literally untethered by having to bother himself with trifle things like moving the plot forward as he busies himself with the far more entertaining job of getting on the tits of literally everyone around him. Gifted with a stonking entrance as he rides into port as his boat sinks around him and an early exchange which tells you all you need to know about the character in two sentences (“You are without a doubt the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of.”, “Ah, but you have heard of me.”) it seemd inevitable that this rum loving scamp was always destined to swipe the attention off everyone else, but that’s the point. The movie lets the more conventional couple of Will and Elizabeth do all the hard work precisely so Jack can wander in and stir everything up without the need for a past or an arc – he’s the Joker from The Dark Knight, or the shark from Jaws; only funnier. And drunker. In fact, if anyone in the cast comes close to Depp’s leftfield acting choices, is an epically game Geoffrey Rush who grabs the villainous role of the cursed Captain Barbossa and throttles every inch of subtlety he can out of it while invoking the full glory of Robert Newton’s Long John Silver-esque cornish growl.
What finally seals the deal – aside from the stonking production values that sees whole towns and full sized ships created and summarily destroyed (don’t forget, this is a Jerry Bruckheimer production) – is the quirky grit of director Gore Verbinski who blends the slapstick and duelling wordplay of Laurel and Hardy (Verbinski’s criminally underrated Mousehunt is essentially the greatest Laurel and Hardy movie never made) with some good, old fashioned Errol Flynn style action sequences which let’s the leads swing around on ropes, engage in clashing wordplay and swash many a buckle as they go.
It’s almost perfect, but a hefty run time means that a lot of the backwards and forwards motion of the plot and the sheer amount of back stabbing means that some characters simply vanish beneath the waves caused by Depp’s world class mugging. There literally seems to be no reason for a pre-Avatar Zoe Saldãna to be there seeing as she presumably became too busy to reappear in any sequels and when is the last time you saw Jonathan Pryce so marginalised – but then maybe I’m expecting too much from a cast list that has numerous groups of comic relief characters that tag in and out of the movie and a lead character that comunicates entirely in insanely quotable quips. Surely when it comes us having to endure annoying impersonations of comedy characters by that one friend we all have, Jack Sparrow was surely the Austin Powers of his time…
But in the grand scheme of things, this is all small potatoes as (deep breath) Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl manages, against all odds and common sense, to weave all of it’s action adventure threads into something that feels genuinely new, is legitimately funny and carries a genuine sense of the epic without somehow outstaying its welcome.
“This is either madness… or brilliance.” laments Will as he embarks on another one of Sparrow’s deranged master plans, for the pirate to reply “It’s remarkable how often those two traits coincide.”
Yeah, no shit, Jack – your whole existence is bloody one of them.