Tuesday 17 May 2011

From the archive: "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest"

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl had one good joke - that its pirates were pirates (funny; cf. Dodgeball), but not especially accomplished pirates - that wore thin the more conventionally heroic the leads became. What was amazing about that first film's success was the number of grown adults who fell for it; American cinema is routinely accused of being juvenile, but rarely can a movie - even a summer movie - have been pitched so squarely at a pantomime crowd of seven- and eight-year-olds. (Seven- and eight-year-olds who had to drag their parents along to see it, according to the certificate.) Based on a theme park ride, and helmed by a director (in Gore Verbinski) who never let you forget that fact, this was the type of cinema you'd hoped we'd all have grown out of.

The sequel, Dead Man's Chest, is more - and more (and more) - of the same: silly in a humorless way (Verbinski returning to offer an inflated, unfocused version of the slapstick in his perfectly decent calling-card hit Mouse Hunt) and, here especially, outright dubious in its portrayal of anyone who isn't as white as Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. The usual retort to an observation like this is not to take anything about the film too seriously; but then, as it's the film most people will be going to see this weekend, it's hard so to do, knowing that a large number of people are going to be exposed to its casual, retrograde racism. At least with last year's King Kong remake (far, I would argue, from racist) you had the advantage of getting a great movie experience to go with the film's questionable racial stereotypes. Not so here; with Dead Man's Chest, all you get is two-and-a-half hours of indoctrinated blockbuster "fun".

That's right: two-and-a-half hours. Even those whose timbers were well and truly shivered by the first film might concede the sequel's length is a problem, not least as it gives the dissenting viewer time to consider a number of things. One: how Verbinski takes one whole hour of faffing around to set up the "dead man's chest" business promised by the title, then labours through a ridiculous series of climaxes-that-aren't-climaxes just as one hopes the film is coming to an end. (Even the final scene isn't a climax, just the set-up for a third film.) Two: that Depp's "comedy drunk" mugging - it's not a performance - is not nearly as funny as might once have been proposed. (Not even he can justify the extended running time.)

Three: that Keira, disappointingly tan, is now almost as boring as Orblando. (This is, in the main, a very ugly franchise - humans with barnacles, glass eyes and bad teeth, grotesque sea monsters, Geoffrey Rush - and it doesn't help that its idea of beauty is of the least interesting kind.) Four: that the franchise - set in a world far, far enough away to have some vague assumption of exoticism about it - is the new Star Wars, and not good Star Wars, but bad Star Wars: Orblando as Luke Skywalker, Keira as Princess Leia, Depp as Han Solo-via-Jar Jar Binks, surrounded by a plethora of squid-like creatures and underwhelming CGI, the whole package cursed by the capacity to irritate more than it really should.

The more time Verbinski gives you, the more one is inclined to think the running time is a major misjudgement. It certainly won't help the cinemas, who won't be able to squeeze as many screenings into the day, and therefore won't make as much money (usually the top priority) as they might. And it doesn't do the studio any good, as it gives the audience fewer hours in the day to spend their hard-earned on the really important parts of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: the Happy Meals and action figures (take the replica Black Pearl ship, currently retailing for fifty of your English pounds) and the fruits of the year's most bewildering promotional tie-in, with a certain Swedish automobile manufacturor. Pirates on a pillaging mission were often swung by the Volvo's superior safety record, I gather.

(July 2006)

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