Sunday 15 May 2011

From the archive: "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"

Though it's certainly the most original blockbuster of this summer - well, pirates haven't been tried at the box-office for, ooh, at least six years, and it arrives without a number at the end of its title (even if that franchise-prolonging colon is something of a worry) - those of us coming late to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, labelled by some "the best blockbuster of the summer", are liable only to find it nonsense with sails on, a disappointingly empty experience that reminds one it's now only four months until The Return of the King, and with it (one hopes) the return of event movies with heart.

What you want from this latest Jerry Bruckheimer über-production is Con Air on a boat, summer season subversion in spades; what you actually get is Cutthroat Island with its tongue slightly further - and even more expensively - in cheek. For a while, it stays see-worthy. Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (responsible for the mischievous Shrek) have come up with a set of fundamentally useless heroes, people who look filthy and smell terrible, who barely know one end of a cutlass from another.

Captain "Mad" Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, who clearly counted all that time spent around rockstars as research) is accused by one British officer of being "the worst pirate I've ever seen". Sidekick Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is sensitive to donkeys, but when he runs into battle against the evil, moonlight-exposed zombie pirate Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his men gets a smack round the head just when he thinks he's got his opponents where he wants them. As the two heroes' becorseted object of, respectively, lust and love, governor's daughter Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley, as pale as the full moon itself; as many reasons as you like for women to stay out of the sun this summer) positions herself as the voice of common sense, but she reaches for a sword in a fireplace decoration, and pulls the whole lot down with it.

Bruckheimer, again, proves unbeatable at packaging, if not necessarily filmmaking. Along with the requisite "hot" male and female leads (Bloom and Knightley, increasingly interchangeable, long of hair, clean of jawline), you get at least one performance that's either in on the joke or very much part of it (for Cage and Malkovich in Con Air, or Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide, read Depp and Rush here, attempting to out-"arrr" one another) and further evidence of this producer's fondness for casting British actors (Christopher Eccleston in Gone in 60 Seconds, Ian Hart in Enemy of the State, here Mackenzie Crook from TV's The Office) in the hope of extending both the film's credibility and overseas box-office.

Stick a Hans Zimmer score (or similar: here, the composer of choice is Klaus Badelt) over the top, get a hack director (Gore Verbinski) who's willing to put their name to it, and - voila! - you got yourself a $200m gross, and counting. It's fine when the formula works, but here - with its protagonists essentially squabbling over a trinket (rather than, say, world peace) - it becomes unnecessarily protracted, exhausting rather than exhilarating, and much less fun the more conventionally heroic the leads become. Verbinski, a pawn in the Disney/Bruckheimer game, adds little: as swashbucklers go, Black Pearl is a lesser film than Kevin Reynolds' underrated The Count of Monte Cristo, and there's nothing here to match the imagination of his own Mouse Hunt, much less the pace of his recent The Ring. He does, however, earn the unique distinction of being the only director whose last three films have been based on a magazine article, a Japanese original, and a theme park ride. Perhaps he should base the next one on a script.

(August 2003)

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