YAAARRRGH! 

 
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Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom bring new meaning to pirates' booty in Pirates of the Caribbean.

One peg-leg, umpteen skeletons, and two hours of fun

Ahoy, mateys, and welcome to the ride of the summer. You may know that Pirates is ostensibly based on a theme park ride. You may reasonably have concluded that this isn't the most promising inspiration for a major motion picture. If that's the case, I'm happy to say, you (and your humble author) were wrong.

Behold the eyelinered, ill-groomed menace of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), either the best or the worst pirate who ever roamed the seas, depending on whom you ask. He coasts into harbor on a sinking ship and would have little trouble commandeering a new one, if not for having to rescue a fair maiden when none of the military men around him could be bothered.

And how's this for gratitude? The girl's suitor and her father, instead of throwing him a hero's party, intend to lock him up! Good thing he knows how to swing from ropes - Sparrow executes the first of the film's many daring escapes, almost all of which lead to a new imprisonment.

Remarkably, Sparrow doesn't win the girl's heart with this feat. Elizabeth Swann (the alabaster-carved Keira Knightly, recently seen in Bend It Like Beckham) is already swooning over a lowly blacksmith named Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, who might have been made of alabaster as Lord of the Rings' Legolas, but here has vague whiskers bedecking his boyish face).

What unfolds is a yarn far too complicated to unravel here - a tall tale involving orphaned pirates, Aztec curses, double-crosses, and romance. Lest the reader fear it's not a real pirate tale, there's also: a deadly gangplank, a talking parrot, a deserted island, and (however briefly) a peg-legged sailor. And a pirates' code ("it's more a set of guidelines," snickers Geoffrey Rush), and a hidden treasure trove. Amazingly, the story - concocted largely by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who dipped their quills into Shrek and The Mask of Zorro - makes almost complete sense.

Which is a good thing, because you don't want to be distracted by plot holes when you're watching a man's skin become transparent in the moonlight, revealing a grisly skeleton. Captain Sparrow's old crew, led by Rush's Barbossa, have been transformed into the undead, cursed to sail the seas unable to enjoy their food, quench their thirst, or satisfy their lust - which takes much of the joy out of growling "yaaar!" Their true form is only visible in direct moonlight, and one of the movie's many delights is watching this bunch go about their deadly business while illuminated by moonbeams, their sinew and bone grinning evilly.

That skeletal pleasure pales, though, compared to watching Johnny Depp's crazed prance through the picture. He is Robert Louis Stevenson by way of Hunter S. Thompson, all craven wisecracks and goofy affectation - other seafarers say he was driven mad by long isolation, but the viewer will suspect he just thinks being loopy is more fun.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Dir. Gore Verbinski; writ. Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio; feat. Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce (PG-13)
Depp's goofiness makes him a good foil for Bloom, the pure-hearted boy who may or may not have pirate's blood in his veins. Fresh from the Peter Jackson academy of arcane martial arts, Bloom provides much of the film's swordplay. While director Gore Verbinski doesn't get his parries on the screen as thrillingly as Jackson would, he makes up for it in the other realms of swashbuckling, giving his colorful cast plenty of opportunity to play without forgetting that he wants to indulge us, not them.

He indulges his employers too, of course, and the film's main error in judgment appears to be a concession to Disney's family friendliness: If the studio deigns to make a PG-13 film with gore, cleavage, and a human death toll proportionate to the number of swords being swung, the reasoning seems to go, then the heroine's father must be allowed to redeem himself in the end no matter how out of character it is.

But never mind that - Disney has beaten the odds and delivered a truly satisfying pirate movie. If this is the start of a trend, here's hoping we get a few straightforward swashbucklers out of Hollywood before they combine this genre with the newly-fashionable musical and give us a new Pirates of Penzance. •


More by John DeFore

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