Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Based on a theme park ride, this rather surprisingly ends the thirty-year bad-luck streak of pirate films (cf: The Island, Yellowbeard, Hook, Pirates, Cutthroat Island) with amiable adventuring as much in the tradition of Ray Harryhausen as Errol Flynn. Captain Barbossa, of the ragged-sailed ship the Black Pearl (Geoffrey Rush, doing Hancock doing Robert Newton), needs to get hold of an Aztec coin medallion and shed the blood of a descendant of pirate Bootstrap Bill in order to lift a curse that has transformed his entire crew into zombies whose true rotten state is revealed under moonlight and who have been unable to enjoy fleshly pleasures since this stroke of fate (being a PG Disney film, this means Barbossa desperately wants to eat an apple, not Keira Knightley). Mixed into this are Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, channelling John Lennon and the entire Fast show), a pirate driven mad by a marooning that also means he escaped the curse (though this supposed ordeal is later shown to be just a three-day drunk), Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) — the spirited daughter of the dithery governor (Jonathan Pryce) — taken by the pirates for Bootstrap’s sprig, a martinet commodore (Jack Davenport) who wants the girl and to catch the pirates, and humble swordsmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) who happens to be the real son of Bootstrap Bill. There’s a lot of back and forth with alliances made and betrayed and reversals of situation keeping the story going, but it’s basically a mix of whiskery Python-style humour and theme park-style action. It may be, as is the 2003 fashion, a tad overlong (one too many returns to the treasure cave and – yes! – you can have too many skeleton fights), but it’s a rare summer blockbuster that just sets out to have fun without becoming tiresome. Gore Verbinski, racking up a very strange CV, does some scenes in the style of Army of Darkness-vintage Sam Raimi, but is as comfortable with Depp’s crazed, apparently free-associational performance and the expected sword and rope-swinging.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
For two hours of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, this sequel to the surprise hit is about everything anyone would want it to be: everyone is back from the first film and given things to do which extend their characters; some engaging new folks are thrown into the mix; you get a great deal of old-fashioned swashbuckling and seafaring fantasy, as if someone had crossbred Richard Lester’s Musketeer movies with Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad pictures; and room is found for enough thematic meat – in the argument between unrepentant selfish bastard Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and upstanding heroine Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) over the temptations of scurviness and altruism – to give the picture a bit of heart between laughs and thrills. Then the realisation sets in that this is one of those Matrix/Back to the Future jobs where two sequels are shot more or less back to back. So, though there’s a fairly satisfying switch near the end as Sparrow tries for once to do the right thing and Elizabeth exploits him with a sneaky trick masked by a kiss, leaving him to be swallowed by an impressively tentacled and toothed monster of the deeps (the Kraken), this rather dawdles in what turns out not to be the home stretch, keeping all its plot balls up in the air, resolving absolutely nothing then bringing back the sole apparent hold-out from the first film unbilled for a grin at the cut-out which is supposed to propel us into the next picture. Fair enough, but it’s easy to resent the assumption that the likeable but hardly classic Pirates of the Caribbean is worthy of the reverence expected of the audience, with even the minor bit-players pausing to take a bow when they reappear as if they had been beloved in a dozen previous films rather than seen in one okay picture.
The plot kick-off cleverly builds on the earlier film, with a new baddie (Tom Hollander) representing the East India Company (the irony of Disney making movies about grasping, megalomaniacal corporations was set in stone back when Keenan Wynn played Alonzo Hawk opposite Herbie the VW Bug and is now just part of the furniture), showing up with arrest warrants for dauntless William Turner (Orlando Bloom) and his fiancee – charged with the crime of letting off Captain Jack at the end of the first film. The pair escape separately and set out to find the Captain, who of course feels no obligation to be of any help even though they spared his life last time – and the third wheel from the first film (Jack Davenport) turns up as a drunken derelict out to get his life back. The actual plot is built around a bargain Jack struck with Davy Jones (Bill Nighy morphed into a squidheaded salt), who is here the Captain of the Flying Dutchman, to turn over his body and soul for a hundred years’ service on the cursed vessel after a time as skipper of the Black Pearl, his own ship. Jack is seeking the key to Davy Jones’s locker, in which he keeps his beating heart, or else to palm off William as a substitute victim. On the Dutchman, William gets to meet the father he never knew, pirate Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) – much mentioned in the earlier film, but introduced here.
It needs several in-the-know characters, most enjoyably a patois-spouting, black-toothed Carib witch (Naomie Harris), to explain the ins and outs of the curses, bargains, lost treasures, magic compasses, articles of amnesty and so on which keep the characters running around on islands or the seven or so seas – but director Gore Verbinski keeps up with set-pieces that tend to overwhelm the flow of the story (as in Peter Jackson’s King Kong) but are still fun: precarious clifftop pursuit involving a cannibal tribe, several encounters with the Kraken (the pronounciation is disputed), a three-way swordfight that gets complicated on a runaway water-wheel, lots of grotesque half-sailor-half-sea-creature baddies, Knightley dressed as a cabin boy impersonating a ghost, etc, etc. In fact, there’s so much good stuff here that it’s all the more annoying not to be given a whole movie at the end of it.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
The second of two back-to-back sequels to a surprise hit, this feels just like The Matrix Revolutions: it’s long (nearly three hours), stretches to a couple of truly amazing (yet monotonous) sequences, is stuck with a storyline of insane complexity (which is still not very interesting), can’t help but include a couple of good scenes and performances, but offers surprisingly little you’d want to take home in the memory and cherish forever. As with the Matrix saga, the studio probably ought to have quit when they were ahead rather than go back for another (enormously profitable) dip in the well and leave you with a solid, modest sleeper untainted by the anchor-weight of the pompous follow-ups. The second film, which managed to keep up the momentum for half its long running time before sinking, made such an insane amount of money it’s likely this will come close to matching its returns and, given the protracted finale (which cleverly sidelines the boring characters but keeps the interesting ones in play) and a narrative hook about the Fountain of Youth, it’s a possibility the saga will continue.
This instalment opens surprisingly well, in downbeat manner, with the East India Company (boo! hiss!) suspending civil liberties in the territories under their rule and sending glum crowds (including a little boy who has to stand on a barrel) to the gallows. For a moment, it seems the film will equate 18th Century British treatment of piracy with 21st Century American attitudes to terrorism, but this gets frittered away in a plot that takes this whole running time to tell but still doesn’t find room to show pirates actually being pirates. Here, the ‘nine pirate lords’ and all their ships are vaguely in favour of freedom of the high seas (yay! freedom!) but act like East End gangsters were popularly (and erroneously) supposed to — only hurting their own kind. The long first act finds the regular supporting cast in Singapore (a long way from the Caribbean, though geography goes over the side here) to do a murky deal with Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), a new character, in preparation for setting sail to bring Captain Sparrow (Johnny Depp), last seen eaten by the Kraken, back from the dead. The EIC, bossed by nasty Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), has control of the Flying Dutchman, captained by tentacle-featured Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) – Hollander, incidentally, means Dutchman.
The goodies, who betray each other on such a regular basis that it loses all effect, take along the voodoo chick (Naomie Harris) from the last film, who turns out to be Calypso the Goddess of the Sea bound in human form by those pirate lords (and Davy Jones’ sometime squeeze); briefly, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) is mistaken for Calypso, but this plot-thread never fights its way to the forefront and is dropped before it can be explained. The main attraction has always been Johnny Depp’s Sparrow, and he’s dead for quite a long stretch: when we get to him, he’s inhabiting a limbo that could have come from a Spike Jonze or Vincenzo Natali film, stranded in a vast desert on a ship crewed entirely by versions of himself, then borne across the dunes by a myriad stone crabs. The goodies fall off the edge of the world, somewhere near Antarctica, and save Sparrow, then pull off a supposedly exciting run-across-the-decks-and-capsize-the-ship bit that gets everyone back to somewhere the regular rules of physics are supposed to apply – though those are abolished for a finale with ships battling as they whoosh around a whirlpool and no one with a speaking part falls off the rigging into the maelstrom.
Hours and hours pass in business, with surprisingly little action – much of the film consists bizarrely of people competing in rotten-tooth snarls (only Knightley and Orlando Bloom have white choppers) and piratical gurning. The last act does have many vast effects, but also becomes mind-numbing – there’s a terrific death scene for the major villain, walking down stairs as his ship is blown to fragments around him, but many plot turns smack of exhausted screenwriters. The set-up is that the nine pirate lords are in Shipwreck Cove, their fastness, and think they can take on the EIC, until the lone ship of Cutler Beckett turns out to be backed up by an unimaginably vast fleet. All these ships then heave to and look at each other, while three of them battle each other (the plot-hinge is to do with who takes over Captaincy of the Dutchman) and the regular characters get their story-arcs resolved in battle. Those pirate lords and that EIC fleet, elaborately introduced, do absolutely nothing – and the goodies win simply because the villain is so shocked that he fails to issue a simple order. Then, that overwhelmingly superior EIC fleet contains not a single junior baddie who can take over and complete the business of sweeping the pirates from the sea. By now, everyone knows Depp modelled his performance on Keith Richards; and Richards himself pops up as wise old pirate Captain Teague, delivering such worth in a tiny cameo you wonder why he hasn’t done any real screen acting before but not sounding much like Depp’s supposed impersonation of him. Directed by Gore Verbinski.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
The most interesting aspect of this ‘fourth part of the trilogy’ is that it literally goes back to a source, and not just the Fountain of Eternal Youth (or healing or whatever) in Florida. Many noticed that in turning a theme park ride into a franchise, writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio had drawn on the genre mix of Tim Powers’ novel On Stranger Tides. Now, the studio has bought the book and used elements from the novel – though, of course, I’m not alone in wishing they’d just made the damn book in the first place, and not felt obliged to string the remnants of Powers’ story around leftover characters and business from the earlier films. Directed by Rob Marshall, taking over from Gore Verbinski, it’s a stronger movie than either of the previous sequels but still feels like another go-round for something that isn’t as fresh as it was the first time out.
Here, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) learns that someone in London is recruiting a crew in his name and discovers an ex-girlfriend Angelica (Penélope Cruz) dressed up as him – it turns out she’s either the bogus or genuine daughter of Edward Teach aka Blackbeard (Ian McShane), ‘the pirate other pirates fear’, and needs Jack’s directions to that Florida spring so he can get there before a Spanish expedition and ahead of vengeance-seeking one-legged privateer Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). In typical collect-the-plot-coupons storytelling, the fountain doesn’t just bestow youth at any quaff but the aspirant needs a) a tear from a mermaid and b) two silver goblets from the wreck of the Ponce de Leon’s ship. This makes for set-pieces: the best thing in the film is a skirmish with beautiful, vampire-fanged mermaids, though Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who is hauled into the swamp to provide a tear (and sprouts Splash-style legs when dry), isn’t much of a character even as she warms up to a dull handsome missionary (Sam Clafin); but a face-off between Jack and Barbossa in a precariously-balanced wreck is less expertly handled.
Powers’ cleverest trick was taking elements of history (like Blackbeard’s habit of setting his whiskers on fire) and coming up with a fantastical rationale for them – here, the pirate has zombie-raising powers and uses voodoo dolls, but his status as a mage is blurry and McShane mostly plays him as a growly regular piratical bastard. He does however collect ships he’s sunk in bottles, the way Brainiac collected cities in the Superman comics. As in The Tourist, Depp somehow doesn’t strike sparks with his gorgeous leading lady – here, because Angelica is written as such a strident, wavery character and there’s still a lot of fog about why exactly she is so devoted to her horrid, horrid father. In fact, it’s the sort of film where people do things for the point of the specific scene rather than out of a consistent characterisation. The mermaid scene offers eerie, magical, calm moments, which underlines how hectic, busy and elaborate yet prosaic the rest of it is. With regular Kevin McNally and newbie Stephen Graham huffing as they carry plot devices, and cameos from Richard Griffiths (fat King George), Keith Richards (Jack’s perhaps ghostly father), Judi Dench (woman in carriage), Australian model Gemma Ward (as First Mermaid) and Roger Allam (underused as the Prime Minister).