There's a good argument for the pirate movie, a cinema faction once flourishing with the likes of Wallace Beery, Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster, now reduced to caricature and powdered wigs. Remember Roman Polanski's Pirates (1986), with a monstrously miscast Walter Matthau looking lost at sea? How about Monty Python's Graham Chapman tarnishing his legend as Yellowbeard (1983), or Renny Harlin nearly destroying the careers of all those involved with Cutthroat Island (1995)?
The list goes on: Spielberg's dismal Hook ('91) with Dustin Hoffman's pirate Hook inspiring hatred for all things Peter Pan; Linda Ronstadt and the legendary Rex Smith embarrassing themselves in The Pirates of Penzance ('83); and Ice Pirates ('83), an attempt at sci-fi starring the late Robert Urich.
With a nightmarish cinematic stew such as this, it's a wonder why Disney would greenlight the mega-budgeted Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Based on one of their amusement park rides (as was last year's poorly received and misunderstood The Country Bears), it hardly has the makings of a substantial film. In a summer full of blockbusters featuring the likes of Arnie, Keanu and Ford, this movie's star is none other than the eccentric Johnny Depp, a name that doesn't necessarily promise big box office.
Shockingly, Black Pearl rallies in the face of everything riding against it to provide a pleasant surprise in a dismal summer movie season. The film is well aware of the clichés and pitfalls that have rendered pirate films useless. Rather than eschew the talking parrots and bottles of rum, it embraces and glorifies the silliness of it all, blending a sensible dose of comedy with a morbid touch of effective horror. It's a bit long in the tooth, with about five endings too many, and its hero (played by Orlando Bloom) is a dullard, but these are minor quibbles. This is, despite all odds, a good pirate movie.
The film opens at sea, where a young girl retrieves a mysterious gold medallion off a shipwreck survivor and hides it for years. The young girl grows up to be, lucky for us, the ravishing Keira Knightly, who is kidnapped by the evil pirate Barbossa (an appropriately disgusting Geoffrey Rush).
Barbossa seeks to lift a curse off himself and his crew that transforms them into walking-dead skeletons in the moonlight, with the medallion being key to his salvation. A rescue party, led by Bloom and the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), sets out to save the damsel in distress and instigate many a bloody swordfight.
Directed by Gore Verbinski (The Ring, The Mexican), the movie benefits from mostly good casting, and a gloriously over-the-top approach that features lush sets, a rousing score by Klaus Badelt and decent CGI effects. Those looking to take the kiddies to this one, beware: It features massive cartoonish violence, and the supernatural element that turns pirates into walking, rotting skeletons will fuel some bad dreams. As Disney movies go, this one is nasty-scary.
Driving the picture is Depp, having a blast and refusing to sell out in the middle of big-ticket Disney fare. Depp camps it up as the ambiguous Sparrow, perhaps the strangest pirate in the history of cinema. With tangled dreads, gold teeth and a gleefully sloppy British accent, Depp's performance is proof that big-action movie acting doesn't have to be by the numbers.
At nearly two hours, The Curse of the Black Pearl proves to be all the pirate movie we will need for the next 20 years. While the film doesn't necessarily do anything to reinvent a thrashed genre, it does the memorable, wooden-legged scalawags of yesteryear some justice.