Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

I assume that, when Disney head Michael Eisner says his prayers before bedtime every night, he ends with "...and God bless Johnny Depp."  This movie should have been a huge, $150 million flop, but Depp's bizarre performance fueled it to ridiculous box office numbers and two sequels (so far).  It's based on an amusement park ride, a genre of movie that is barely existent for a reason; nobody wants to see Tilt-a-Whirl: The Movie.  Beyond all probability and expectations, though, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was an unqualified success, grossing over $650 million worldwide.  But was it any good?

Despite the title, the Black Pearl had no curse.  The subtitle should have been PotC: Montezuma's Revenge, but I can see some negative connotations with that.  They could have at least used PotC: Screw You, Aztec Gold!  Whatever.  The main story of this film is unusual, because it doesn't necessarily require these particular lead characters.  I'll explain.  The main plot is about the crew of the pirate ship, the Black Pearl.  These men discovered a famous cache of Aztec gold, but learned too late that the gold was cursed; after they spent it, they lived as supernatural creatures, unable to feel pain or joy, only hunger.  The only way to remove the curse is to gather all their spent gold from around the globe and return it to its resting place, with the blood of everyone that took the gold.  Unfortunately, pirates aren't very trustworthy, so one of the crew mailed his son a gold piece (just before the others killed him), so the crew could never know peace.  And that's just back story!  The movie hasn't even started yet! 

The son, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) grows up to be a blacksmith in Port Royal, Jamaica.  As a child, he thought he lost the cursed gold piece, but it was actually found by his dream woman, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley).  I don't know why she held on to the piece for over a decade, but she did.  On the day she rediscovers the gold piece, she manages to fall in the ocean.  Clumsy wench.  Upon hitting the water, a pulse is sent out across the seas; apparently, the gold calls to the cursed pirates.  Unaware of this, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who has no ship or crew, rescues Elizabeth from drowning.  As a show of thanks on behalf of the Port Royal navy, Sparrow is arrested for piracy by Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport).  Well, he is eventually arrested by Norrington.  In the meantime, Sparrow meets Turner, and they have a swordfight where the audience realizes that Will Turner is a boring person: "...and I practice [swordplay]...three hours a if I meet a pirate...I can kill him!"  Will, that is a huge investment of time for a relatively unlikely goal.  Of course, he did meet a pirate, so I guess it was all worthwhile.  While Sparrow is in jail, Port Royal gets attacked by marauding pirates, who are after Elizabeth's gold piece.  Thinking that they mean to use her as a ransom object (her dad is the Governor of Port Royal), Elizabeth lies and tells the pirates that her last name is Turner.  Well, they're looking for a Turner with the gold piece to remove the curse, so they take her with them.  From there, Will frees Sparrow to rescue Elizabeth, they recruit their own crew of crazy pirates, and try to avoid being caught by Commodore Norrington or killed by the crew of the Black Pearl.

You see?  With that back story in place, it doesn't really matter who else is in the movie, as long as the Black Pearl's men find the last gold piece.  Yes, Will Turner's blood is needed to remove the curse, but Elizabeth and Jack Sparrow could have easily been somewhere else and the pirates would have still gone after Turner and the gold.  In my mind, that is the A plot, with Jack Sparrow's attempts to regain ownership of the Pearl as the B plot and Will and Elizabeth's love story as the C plot.  You wouldn't think it, but that's just how it is.

That unconventional plot structure combines with a novel genre mashing to make this a pretty unique film.  Pirate films have been pretty terrible for the last, oh, 70 years or so.  I can only think of one good movie in my lifetime with a pirate in it (The Princess Bride), and there was little to no piracy in that film.  To salvage that, the screenwriters (and there were a lot, so I'm not sure who came up with this idea) decided to make this a supernatural pirate movie.  Sure, you throw in a few skeletal undead pirates, and the whole movie starts to come together.  Honestly, the traditional "pirate" scenes, particularly the sword fighting scenes, are among the film's more ridiculous moments and are not particularly exciting.  Still, the use of humor and the good character work bolster the supernatural pirate premise enough to overcome those shortcomings.

Performance-wise, most of the cast is playing it pretty simple.  Orlando Bloom actually has to play it simple, since he has trouble expressing more than mild confusion in any movie.  Still, he plays the straightforward swashbuckling role well enough and works even better as a straight man for Johnny Depp.  Keira Knightley gets to practice her sassmouth in this film, making her character surprisingly feminist, given the story's setting.  Geoffrey Rush is great as the evil Captain Barbossa; it's not a complex character, but Rush clearly has a blast in the role and that makes him fun to watch.  Also worth noting is Kevin McNally as Jack Sparrow's friend, Gibbs.  He's not fantastic, but he blends comedy and piracy well.  The rest of the cast is less impressive, but nobody is terrible.  Jonathan Pryce and Jack Davenport are fine as the primary supporting non-pirates.  Lee Arenberg started out as a pretty menacing figure in his first scene, but he and Mackenzie Crook quickly became the comedy relief for the pirate scenes.  Zoe Saldana has a bit role, but she's still moderately annoying as the film's only female boat captain.

With those actors and characters, this would still be a pleasant movie, but it is Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow that makes all the difference.  A bizarre combination of sleazy femininity, outright drunkenness, and Keith Richards mannerisms, Jack Sparrow was entirely created by Depp.  How he got that past Disney's people, I don't know.  While Depp is the lead actor in the film, he functions as a supporting character.   He doesn't really spark the action, but reacts to situations.  That keeps the character fresh and appealing throughout; too much Jack Sparrow can be overwhelming, as the sequels can attest to.  When I first saw this movie, I laughed at almost everything Depp did on screen.  He wasn't cracking jokes, but his character is very busy; he is constantly constantly changing his expression, touching things, and swaying in the wind. While I wouldn't say this is Depp's best performance, I believe it is certainly his most memorable character and, as such, his Oscar nomination for this role was well deserved.

Depp delivers almost all the best lines in the movie, which helps his character's appeal.  It really doesn't get any better or simpler than Sparrow's reaction to when Will accuses him of cheating in their sword fight: "Uh, pirate."  While there are a lot of clever lines ("Clearly, you've never been to Singapore" is another), there are some pretty terrible script moments, too.  I understand that Elizabeth is all gung-ho and anti-damsel-in-distress, but the scene where Keira Knightley is having trouble fitting into a corset because it's too tight...?  That's some mighty fine acting, because I'm pretty sure she is sixty pounds soaking wet.  And Keira gets saddled with a lot of bad dialogue, too.  Her worst line of dialogue is also her last: "[Will Turner]'s not a blacksmith...he's a pirate!"  And everyone shakes their head and smiles, because they realize that Elizabeth is a very stupid girl.

The Curse of the Black Pearl turned out to be a pretty fun movie.  Yes, it's too long and director Gore Verbinski spends too much time on the supporting cast, but it manages to make pirate movies entertaining again.  Johnny Depp deserves most of the credit for that, but Geoffrey Rush does a great job as Depp's counterpart.  The story would be stronger if there was more linking these characters than serendipity, but it doesn't require much suspension of disbelief (until the sequels).  No, it's certainly not a flawless film, but what more do you want from a movie based on an amusement park ride?

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