Wednesday 5 May 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Director: Gore Verbinski
Stars: Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Of all the films ever made, let alone those which made it all the way up to the lofty peaks of the IMDb Top 250, this really should have been the most awful of the lot. It's well known, of course, that movies based on books are rarely as good as their source material, movies based on comics have only recently begun to be made by people who read comics and, at the bottom of the heap, movies based on video games are almost universally horrendous. This film could easily be read as a bizarre attempt to discover if there is anything worse in film than a video game adaptation except perhaps animated sales pitches designed to sell copious quantities of Pokémon cards to kids spending their parents' money. This is a movie based on a theme park ride, of all things, and a Disney ride to boot, one that opened in 1967 as a pioneer of audio-animatronics. It's also a pirate movie, a genre that has failed notably on every reboot attempt since perhaps the fifties.

To bring such an inevitable failure to the screen, Disney brought in Gore Verbinski to direct, a failed punk rocker who had made music videos and commercials, albeit popular ones like the Budweiser frogs. Jerry Bruckheimer produced, one of the most important names in the business but one whose talent runs more towards big budget blockbusters than serious quality material, something for which he has no apologies. 'If I made films for the critics, or for someone else,' he has said, 'I'd probably be living in some small Hollywood studio apartment.' No less than four writers had a part in shaping the screenplay, though most of it was put together by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, whose credits include Treasure Planet and the American version of Godzilla. The budget kept creeping up, to the degree that Disney threatened to pull the plug. There wasn't even a star to justify $140m of investment, Johnny Depp being unproven as a leading man.

Of course, that's only one side of the picture. Verbinski was riding high in 2002 on the strength of The Ring, no small feat given that nobody else has been able to make a western remake of an Asian horror movie that was anything less than painful. Bruckheimer may make blockbusters but he has made some of the best ones, for every Pearl Harbor a Top Gun, for every Kangaroo Jack a Beverly Hills Cop and for every CSI: Miami a CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Elliott and Rossio also wrote Small Soldiers and Shrek, two of the best films for kids made in the last few decades. Depp, of course, proved his drawing power to no uncertain degree here, becoming in the process an object of lust to every housewife on the planet, but those of us who have been watching him for years aren't surprised at such success in the slightest. We merely hope that now he can command any salary he cares to mention, he won't leave his quirky art roles entirely behind him.

Looking from that angle, the idea doesn't quite seem as outrageous but it was still a heck of a $140m longshot that gradually inspired enough confidence in the studio to warrant them adding a suffix that kept the door open for future sequels while giving the film yet another unwieldy title in the year that also brought us Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and, worst of all, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. The reasons for the film's success are plentiful, but the more I watch it the more I realise that this is something of a pirate equivalent to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a spirited tribute to the adventure movies and serials of many years ago; and the first swashbuckler to really swash any buckles in at least half a century. It isn't just Johnny Depp, honest. Depp is most obvious, he's who we see and who we can't forget, but if you stay with the movie, you'll find a lot more behind him that resonates and grows over further viewings.
As if to underline how much Verbinski knew that Depp would steal the show from the moment he appeared on screen, he deliberately withholds that appearance for almost ten minutes so we can meet most of the rest of the characters first. There's Weatherby Swann, the decent but cowardly governor of Jamaica, travelling to the Caribbean with his daughter Elizabeth under the protection of Capt James Norrington, a capable officer in the Royal Navy. Governor Swann is played by the always reliable Jonathan Pryce, Capt Norrington by Jack Davenport and young Elizabeth not by Keira Knightley quite yet because we're eight years ahead of our real story. We're here to discover the basics before Depp can begin to distract us, and trust me he's about to do plenty of that. Norrington may repeat that he's without doubt the worst pirate he's ever heard of, but after this film he would become the template for at least the next generation to follow.

Opinions on one crucial issue are particularly divided. The governor doesn't like pirates at all and Norrington hates them with a passion. 'Vile and dissolute creatures, the lot of them,' he says. 'I intend to see that any man who sails under a pirate flag or wears a pirate brand gets what he deserves: a short drop and a sudden stop.' On the other hand, the young Elizabeth quite likes them. 'I think it'd be rather exciting to meet a pirate,' she says, not realising that her wish is about to come true. They promptly discover a young boy adrift at sea and naturally haul him to safety. He's Will Turner, the son of a notorious pirate called Bootstrap Bill Turner and so technically a pirate himself. He also has a pirate medallion around his neck, one that Elizabeth pockets before anyone else notices. She still has it eight years later when she's the lovely Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom is the dashing but inconsequential blacksmith, Will Turner.

And with all the preliminaries out of the way, it's time for Johnny Depp to begin stealing the show in rather memorable style. His performance is stunning from the very first moment we see Capt Jack Sparrow, swaying on top of the mast of his tiny boat as it sinks into the Port Royal harbour, in another Depp tribute to Buster Keaton, just in time for him to step off onto the pier. Originally scripted as a standard sort of cocky pirate that someone like Burt Lancaster would play, Depp had other ideas that rather surprised his co-stars when readthroughs began. With the benefit of hindsight, it's obvious what Depp had in mind, not least because he's explained it enough times in high profile interviews, but at the time Disney executives were utterly lost. They asked him whether he was playing the character as drunk or gay and even Michael Eisner, Disney's CEO, pronounced that Depp was ruining the film, apparently unable to see the quirkiness that his leading man saw in the script.

For a start it's something of a reversal of traditional pirate stories. Instead of stealing treasure, these pirates have spent the last decade returning it, to lift the curse that they've been placed under. The damsel in distress isn't much in distress, except early on from an item of fashionable clothing. 'You like pain?' she asks one pirate. 'Try wearing a corset.' Not least, the lead pirate is not the swashbuckling romantic hero, because that role is reserved for young Will Turner. So, for those of you who have been marooned on an island for the last decade, I'll explain Depp's logic. He found pirates rather akin to modern day rock stars. so based his portrayal on a friend, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, a rather appropriate choice for a film about immortal ghost pirates given that he's one of those men who probably died years ago but just haven't stopped moving yet. Richards played Sparrow's father in the third film and will again in the fourth.

It's easy to see why Depp felt drawn to the role, because Capt Jack Sparrow is so far from your regular lead character that it's hard to think of an equal. This is a swashbuckling yarn but he isn't the one doing the swashbuckling. It's a romance but he doesn't get the girl and he only seeks her briefly under the influence of rum. It's a tale of revenge but that's kept on the backburner for almost the entire film. It's a supernatural story but he's neither part of the supernatural elements nor someone aiming to destroy them. The easiest category applicable could be that of comic relief and he certainly fulfils that role throughout but that only captures a small part of what he really stands for. You could say that he's a romantic lead whose love interest is his ship, the Black Pearl, but that's a stretch. I believe he's really an abstraction, the freedom of the romantic pirate hero, as compared to Will Turner the swashbuckler and Capt Barbossa the villain.
Geoffrey Rush is a massively talented actor, with an Oscar behind him for Shine, but he plays Barbossa simply and straight with enthusiasm and relish rather than depth. In a film that asks what it means to be a pirate, Rush's villainous Barbossa is the sort of pirate that Norrington hates, a vile and dissolute creature who has led a mutiny before the film even begins. He was Sparrow's first mate but turned the crew against him and deprived him of his beloved Black Pearl, leaving him on an island with a pistol and a single shot. The revenge part of the story involves Sparrow's ten year quest to use that single shot and retrieve the Pearl. While this may not be entirely suitable for children of all ages, the first film ever from Walt Disney Pictures to be rated PG-13, Barbossa is the epitome of the pirate to hiss and boo at, a more realistic translation of Captain Hook. Rush adds flair enough for a host of pirates along with many iconic moments destined for the film's trailer.

Will Turner is a natural swashbuckler because he's a pirate who doesn't know he's a pirate and spends the entire film discovering what it's really all about. When he discovers the truth about his father, he begins the journey from denial to acceptance to understanding. By the point that he comes to that realisation, he's personally committed a good deal of the defining acts of a pirate, though all with the best of intentions, of course. Sparrow even lists his achievements at one point, explaining that he had: 'sprung a man from jail, commandeered a ship of the fleet, sailed with a buccaneer crew out of Tortuga, and you're completely obsessed with treasure,' though the treasure in this instance is Elizabeth Swann. Orlando Bloom, once voted as the top 'star most women would like to kiss under the mistletoe' by Sky Movies, is great at the romance and the fighting both, like an Errol Flynn character but with heartfelt innocence.

With Rush restricting himself to the villainous pirate template and Bloom to the romantic ideal, that leaves Depp with the opportunity to strut his stuff as an eccentric, something of a gift for the quirkiest major star in the business. In many ways he's an intrinsic part of what he sees the Black Pearl as representing. 'It's not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails,' he explains to Elizabeth, while ironically confined to another deserted island. 'That's what a ship needs but what a ship is, what the Black Pearl really is, is freedom.' Beyond Depp's inimicable charm, this is perhaps the greatest draw of Capt Jack Sparrow. He doesn't have to fit into the framework of any story, it's enough that he's precisely who he wants to be. That sort of freedom is a dream for most people but one that they wouldn't dare to grasp even if they had the opportunity. So instead they dream of either being or being with Johnny Depp being himself, as applicable.

What all this boils down to is that this is a success, against all the odds, proving that it's possible to craft a successful mainstream movie out of the sort of concepts that blockbusters seem to avoid like diseases: strong themes, a talented cast, solid writing and a simple but buildable storyline. The only thing this really has in common with the majority of blockbusters is that it has some excellent effects work, especially when we see the cursed pirates by moonlight, a look derived from the texture of turkey jerky, of all things. However the effects never take attention away from the characters, care being taken to make the CGI versions of the pirates identifiable through recognisable traits and little gimmicks like Ragetti's badly fitting wooden eye. It helps that the supporting cast were mostly recruited from English television, so people like Mackenzie Crook, Lee Arenberg and Kevin McNally ably flesh out the little stories to add background to the big ones.

This film has grown in my esteem over time to the point where I may even believe its place in this list is justified. While it may be the pirate equivalent of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's not quite that good, but it's still a modern day ripping yarn that will be copied endlessly, a pulp story with surprising weight, unlike its sequels. The title was extended from Pirates of the Caribbean to include The Curse of the Black Pearl, not that the Black Pearl is cursed in the slightest, to reflect the studio's growing confidence in the film's possibilities and to open it up for potential sequels. When it succeeded beyond everyone's wildest expectations, they promptly shot two more films back to back. Dead Man's Chest is a fun ride, though as half of a story it just ends. At World's End retains some magic but is something of a mess. Most of the cast won't return for On Stranger Tides, but Depp and Rush will be back and I'll certainly go to see it in theatres with subdued hope.

1 comment:

jervaise brooke hamster said...

As far as i`m concerned all 3 of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies are ludicrously over-rated unwatchable celluloid abominations that are not worth tuppence!!!.