Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (12A)
The last pirate movie I reviewed was Cutthroat Island back in 1995, which shows how long it takes genres to recover when they are as narrow as this one.
Strange, then, that it took a theme park thrill ride to resurrect this particular genre, combining hokey horror with genuine ocean-going action to create a pirate movie that lovingly embraces all the old clichés.
Pirates of the Caribbean was a Disney theme park ride. The best bit is that, while there are still vestiges of its past, writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (who created Shrek) have also looked to the likes of old Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn classics in order to create the requisite feel for cinema’s greatest entertainment spectacular: the swashbuckler.
On a fog enshrouded sea a ship suddenly happens upon the blazing wreck of a mighty ship. There is only one survivor – a boy on a makeshift raft. Around his neck is a gold medallion. The girl who cares for him takes the trinket and, as she does so, sees a ghostly ship, its sails in tatters, ploughing through the waves back into the fog.
Ten years later the girl is revealed as governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). The boy who was rescued, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), is now a blacksmith. And they share an unspoken love. Before you can shout “Shiver me timbers” both are embroiled in a battle with Captain Barbossa and the crew of the Black Pearl, a legendary pirate ship.
Their unlikely ally is Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp in full-on mode, sounding like he’s stepped straight out of Fagin’s gang in Oliver!), a strutting buccaneer who lands in port on his sinking skiff, stepping from its mast onto the dock in a sequence that sums up his cheeky survivor’s nature.
Both men are thrown together when Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) kidnaps Elizabeth. In exchange for being sprung from a dungeon Sparrow agrees to help the younger man rescue his girl.
So begins a hugely entertaining tale packed with striking visuals, cacophonous battle sequences (notably a fantastic ship-on-ship broadside straight out of Captain Blood in which Depp is heard to wail “Stop blowin’’oles in my ship!”), swordfights and the grungiest privateers this side of the Spanish Main.
Best of all is the moment when Barbossa and his scurvy men are revealed to be ragged skeletons as they pass through moonbeams. “The moonlight shows us for what we really are,” says Rush’s cackling old seadog as Knightley tries not to retch.
While it is 30 minutes too long and noticeably flags after the first hour, this is nevertheless fabulous stuff. Pirates of the Caribbean is a movie destined to become a perennial Christmas TV favourite in the tradition of The Great Escape or Scrooge.
It has everything: hissable villains, damsels in distress, valiant heroes, outlandish yet believable stunts (Fairbanks again), athletic displays of swordplay (think Flynn and Rathbone and you get the idea) and the rotting, undead men of the Black Pearl for good measure. For sheer fun it cannot be beaten.
With his Bow Bells accent and dancer’s moves it is the Depp his eyes heavily lined with waterproof mascara, who steals the movie – a hard task given Rush’s predisposition towards ham acting and OTT performance. Bloom and Knightley are perfect as the youthful lovers while there is strong support in thankless roles for Jack Davenport (as a stiff upper lip officer) and Jonathan Pryce (underwritten and underused as Governor Swann).
Pirates of the Caribbean will be the making of director Gore (The Ring) Verbinski. He has crafted a hit slice of historical tosh that takes the filmmaker’s tools – sweeping helicopter shots, multi-million dollar props (the various ships) and the wizardry of computer generated imagery – and incorporated them seamlessly into his picture. What’s more, none of it is overdone, and that’s a rare thing these days.
A sequel is already on the slate. For once that could be a good thing.
Star rating: ****