Friday, August 01, 2003

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean

Sylvia and I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean last Friday. Here’s my review:

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is the best pirate movie since the days of Errol Flynn. The film succeeds because of two key elements: sincerity and a great sense of fun.

The first step in creating a good film is to write a good script. This is common sense, but it seems almost a lost art these days. Lo and behold, Pirates not only has witty dialogue, but a logical plot that unfolds with precision and clarity. Most action films these days are just a collection of expensive set pieces connected by the most fragile threads, but not so here; each bit of action is integral to the story.

And a good story it is, with likeable (or appropriately detestable) characters who have actual motivations for their actions and understandable goals. The predicament of the villains, led by Geoffrey Rush’s pirate scourge Barbossa, is so ghastly that you even root for the bad guys a little, if only out of sympathy.

And who can help adoring Johnny Depp’s lovable rogue, Jack Sparrow, the pirate without a ship? He’s the Hunter S. Thompson of the seas, looking and acting as though he’s taken a lot of really good drugs to shore up his courage for his many acts of derring-do. Of course, any man who takes a date to the film will have to put up with some swooning over Depp, but that’s all right; there’s plenty of scenery for the men to admire, too.

Orlando Bloom as blacksmith Will Tanner and Keira Knightley as damsel-in-distress Elizabeth Swann play the straight roles here, commoner and noblewoman who are clearly meant for each other, no matter that society forbids fraternization between classes. Bloom reminded me very much of Errol Flynn, in fact; he buckles his swash with extreme flair, and Knightley is spunky and independent without being overbearing. Plus, she looks great in a corset.

There’s a lot of fun to be had from the supporting cast, too, most especially the British navy men, whose upper lips are so stiff that I’m sure they could repel cannonballs. Jack Sparrow’s pirate friends are only sketchily drawn, but they’re likeable nonetheless; the black female character can even be seen as a progressive element in the film; her race and sex are never commented upon, and yet she’s presented as a pirate captain in her own right, and takes the helm of the Interceptor during the key naval battle.

The action sequences—chiefly swordfights and ship-to-ship combat—are spectacular, an overused adjective that nonetheless applies here.

The battle between Barbossa’s Black Pearl—usurped from Depp’s character before the film begins—and Sparrow’s stolen British ship, the Interceptor, is a thrilling spectacle, with cannon fire aplenty, grappling hooks flying everywhere, a suspenseful chase, and a brilliant maneuver that I’ve never seen before, but which seems so logical that I’m surprised this is the first time we’ve seen it in a film.

The special effects are seamlessly integrated into the film, used only when appropriate, and they’re very effective. Special effects should always be used to serve the story, never the other way around, and it’s a huge relief to see them used properly.

Klaus Bedelt’s score is perfectly suited to the raucous goings-on, and reminded me of the glory days of Erich Korngold. There’s lots of crashing percussion and soaring brass, all appropriately nautical—perfect music to shoot cannons and cross swords by.

Clearly, the filmmakers approached this material with an abiding respect for the genre, but neither are they afraid to send up its excesses. The key animal sidekicks—monkey and parrot—have been included, there’s a desert island, rum, a stodgy colonial governor, scurvy dogs, pieces of eight, the skull and crossbones, flintlocks, broadsides, the plank, the obligatory comic relief, and almost all the other pirate trappings. The only things missing, as far as I can determine, were a character with a peg leg and someone with a hook for a hand. Maybe in the sequel.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is pure escapist entertainment at its best. It’s lighthearted, funny, exciting, romantic, and it does all this without pandering to the audience. It’s my second-favourite film of the year, after X2.

By the way, don’t be in a great rush to leave as the credits roll; as is becoming increasingly common in films these days, there’s an extra treat at the very end. Call it the “post-credits coda.”

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