Pirates of the Caribbean

“Pirate movie.” Even the phrase itself sounds like a cliche – an old, worn-out cliche. But perhaps it’s so worn-out that, much like “gladiator movie” a few years back, it’s almost something new to contemporary audiences.

There’s absolutely no reason The Pirates of the Caribbean should be anything close to a “good” movie. It’s a “pirate movie” based on a theme park ride. A theme park ride. If I were a hoity-toity Denbyesque film critic, at this point I might make some drily witty comment regarding how blockbuster films, which are promoted (as Neal Gabler discusses in his book Life: The Movie) much like theme park rides (”it’s a non-stop thrill ride!” etc.), might as well be based on theme park rides – but I won’t, largely because I don’t want to bother coming up with something drily witty.

Getting back to the point, there’s no reason “PotC” should be anything even remotely resembling good. But then, in this day and age of cinema, with the incredible paucity of creativity endemic to Hollywood, perhaps there’s also no reason for it not to be.

Pirates is good enough for me to engage in some hyperbole: it’s a glorious, lush Hollywood adventure, the kind we haven’t seen since Raiders of the Lost Ark. None of the pirate films in recent years have dared to be this fun.

Yes, many of the sets look like sets; yes, the dialogue can certainly be cheesy; yes, Geoffrey Rush, as the zombie pirate captain Barbossa, needs more lines. But Pirates has an ace-in-the-hole that renders all other flaws irrelevant: Johnny Depp as Cap’n Jack Sparrow.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a non-Jim Carrey film that I enjoyed solely for one actor’s performance. Oh, Legolas’s – I mean, Orlando Bloom’s – performance as Will Trevor, the film’s ostensible, small-mustachioed hero, is serviceable, and Keira Knightley’s “tough damsel” is suitably simultaneously strong-willed and bodacious. But dear God, someone give a massive bonus to the person who decided to let Depp play Sparrow like an eighteenth-century Keith Richards! Depp is a pure joy to watch. I loved every moment he was on screen, and tapped my mental foot impatiently when he wasn’t. I’ll be buying this DVD for his performance alone.

Generally, the quality of Depp’s performances have been dependent on whether he’s being directed by Tim Burton. Burton was the director who realized Depp was a “character actor” (read: real actor) who got accidentally caught up in the whole celebrity thing. It was Burton who unearthed the touching, sublime Depp of Edward Scissorhands; the neurotic, fastidious Depp of Sleepy Hollow; and most significantly, the ambitious, gloriously wacky Depp of Ed Wood.

Here, in a performance that Richards reportedly did indeed inspire, Depp’s hilariously flamboyant Sparrow flits from one scene to the next. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film where all the actors seem to be having so much fun, and Depp is clearly having the most fun of all. He plays Sparrow’s eccentric behavior so naturally, one almost wonders if this represents some untapped id in Depp’s psyche.

Director Gore Verbinski, who was responsible for last year’s effectively creepy The Ring, has somehow found a way to tap into that same wacky reservoir. Or maybe he just loosed the leash, it’s hard to tell. In any event, Depp’s Jack Sparrow steals the entire film out from everyone, including Rush (whose Barbossa is essentially a variation on his Casanova Frankenstein character from 1999’s Mystery Men).

Depp’s Sparrow screams sequel – and more than one, if audiences are lucky. The rest of the film – a high seas adventure that runs just a little too long – is simply a vehicle for Depp’s delightful eccentricities. Nonetheless, it all amounts to a few hours of wonderful, true escapist fun, and I can only hope the film’s success will ensure us more adventures with Cap’n Sparrow.

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