Never-ending swagger

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Johnny Depp’s playful performance as the gold-toothed Capt. Jack Sparrow evokes bits of Keith Richards, Richard Simmons, Alice Cooper and Tim Roth’s character in <i>Rob Roy</i>.

Johnny Depp’s playful performance as the gold-toothed Capt. Jack Sparrow evokes bits of Keith Richards, Richard Simmons, Alice Cooper and Tim Roth’s character in Rob Roy.

Rated 2.0

Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Capt. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a work of mischievous thespian abandon that likens buccaneers to 17th-century rock-star outlaws. He plays the shipless scalawag Sparrow as a sun-drunken Keith Richards with a Richard Simmons swish, smudged Alice Cooper eyeliner, chin braids and a treasure trove of beads and ribbons thrashing about his motley mane.

Depp’s androgynous swagger and prancing bring to mind a comic version of the fey and consummately evil swordsman played by Tim Roth in Rob Roy. Sparrow is a creation that is quite playful and promising at first. This comment also applies to the film itself. It immediately immerses us in the mildewy turmoil and glorious clutter of the Disneyland theme park ride on which it is based. Oscar-caliber set designs, costumes and art direction position us for a visually lush adventure, and the introduction of Sparrow aboard a small, sinking sea craft carries the scent of both spent gunpowder and rum-barrel lunacy.

A waggish brush with ship-jackings, kidnapping, executions, betrayal, mutiny, plunder, treacherous seas, escapes, chases, armed clashes, a cursed crew of the undead and a social-class-challenged romance sails along rather gustily for an hour or so before losing wind. By the second hour, the repetition of locales, character quirks and skirmishes dulls the fantasy at hand, and the chemistry at the heart of the film, between a heroic journeyman blacksmith and a feisty governor’s daughter, fails to muster smoldering passion or emotional fireworks. We did not need a fork to be literally stuck into one pirate’s artificial eye to decide that this running joke was already way overdone. Not since Robert Altman’s Popeye has a seafarer’s saga looked so inspired yet sputtered so loudly.

In a brief prologue, a boy wearing a gold medallion is rescued from the sea. We learn he has matured into the young blacksmith Will Turner (played by The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ Orlando Bloom). Will is in love with Elizabeth Swann (Bend It Like Beckham’s Keira Knightley), the governor’s daughter. When Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his cutthroats kidnap Elizabeth, Will enlists the aid of swashbuckler Sparrow to rescue her. Their mission is complicated by the curse of Cortez’s horde of Aztec gold that has turned the Barbossa rogues into “living dead” who are exposed as walking skeletons by the light of the silvery moon.

The screenplay is by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who co-wrote Shrek and the 1998 version of Godzilla, and Jay Wolpert, who penned 2002’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Gore Verbinski, the Clio-winning creator of the Budweiser frogs and a man whose credits include The Ring and discredits include The Mexican, directs with a keen eye for detail and atmosphere.

The overall weakness here is that their Pirates feels more like a homage to the currently closed ride in Los Angeles (which is being reworked to be more politically correct) and a preview of its resurrection (the battles between skeletons and men are exhilarating) than a full-blown movie. The misadventures, laughs, thrills and reenactments of ride scenes, such as prisoners attempting to seduce the keys from a jailhouse dog, are generally entertaining as stand-alone moments but never jell into a satisfying whole.

Depp seems to be enjoying his role as a gold-toothed scoundrel. Rush hams it up splendidly as the commander of human vermin whom hell itself has spate back on Earth. And his goons are the nastiest-looking mates to plunder a ship this side of the pirates of The Island, which included marauders who lit their own heads on fire before attacking their prey.

Pirates of the Caribbean pokes fun at sacred criminal codes and such tribal inconveniences as a call for a parlay in which victimized pirates are allowed to negotiate directly with the captain of their attackers before being run through or walked off a plank. It’s a tale about men once compelled by greed who are now consumed by it but never fully satisfied by either food or sex. It is the first PG-13 film released under the Disney logo, and it includes some violence against women. It is an overly long adventure that, with some tinkering and editing, could have been more akin to such classics as The Crimson Pirate rather than just a reminder that they exist.