Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) / Adventure-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and some disturbing imagery
Running Time: 143 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenplay: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Review published September 17, 2003
To the best of my recollection, there just hasn't been a good pirate movie made in my lifetime, so it should be easy to guess that expectations were certainly low going in to seeing Pirates of the Caribbean. Then add the fact that it has an unprecedented source of inspiration, an amusement park ride, and that quintessential no-brain producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Kangaroo Jack, Bad Company) would be calling many of the shots, and you can see that pre-release feelings would be that a recipe for disaster had already been written. However, I'm happy to say that by all accounts, Pirates delivers pretty much everything you'd expect to see in a pirate flick, and unlike any others made in the last twenty to thirty years, it's actually not close to being one of the worst films of the year.
The film starts off with Depp (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland) as Captain Jack Sparrow, a pirate of some notoriety but little luck, who happens to save Elizabeth Swann (Knightley, Bend It Like Beckham), daughter of a powerful politician, but is still subject to the crimes he's committed. In order to escape, he finds he must kidnap Elizabeth, but in his haste to escape, he meets his swordplay match in William Turner (Bloom, The Two Towers), finding himself in prison yet again. That's when Sparrow's old ship, the "Black Pearl," led by Captain Barbossa (Rush, Swimming Upstream) and a motley crew of mutineers, attacks the town, kidnapping Swann in the process because she is thought to be instrumental in breaking their curse of immortality. Will seeks out Sparrow's help in locating the mysterious Black Pearl, forming an uneasy alliance to get back Elizabeth and hopefully end the pirate menace forever.
I have strong mixed feelings about Pirates of the Caribbean, but much of the attributed negativity comes from the feeling of excess in the battle sequences. It's a given that any swashbuckler is going to have its share of melees full of swordfights, fisticuffs, and men swinging around on ropes galore. The mistake that Pirates makes is not knowing when enough is enough. At close to 2 1/2 hours, it would seem that at least an hour of the film is spent in lengthy fight sequences, some one-on-one and others in chaotic free-for alls. They generally are fun for about a minute or so, but they carry on and on for ten or fifteen minutes each, and sad to say, boredom does begin to creep in quite often during these stretches. In fact, I can't remember to a large extent what goes on during these battles, as I stared at the screen realizing there was fighting going on, but not really caring too much about the details. To say that a half hour of trimming could have been employed without much notice is an understatement -- it actually would have made the film much better.
Still, I am going to give the film a very modest recommendation because it is a decent pirate flick, touching every base with professional finesse, held together by the memorable performances of Depp and Rush. The plot of the film has some good twists, and the screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio is crafted by men who know the genre. Not surprising, since they were the team responsible for such swashbucklers as The Mask of Zorro, plus Disney's Aladdin and Treasure Planet.
So, if you're in the mood for a revisionist pirate story, built around all of the staples and clichés you've come to know, love and expect in any film of this sort, you'll probably be content enough with what Pirates of the Caribbean delivers. Like Silverado did for Westerns, this is more of a love letter to the great pirate movies of old, filled to the brim with knowing references and tongue-in-cheek homage. So, it does have its share of gratuity in the action department, but at least there's plenty of time for you to stretch your legs, go to the rest room or grab some popcorn. It is a popcorn movie, after all.
-- Followed by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007), and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
©2003 Vince Leo