Jolly Good Roger

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2003

It should come as no surprise that a movie based on a Disneyland ride would be greeted with trepidation. But if filmgoers have approached "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" with dread, lucky for them that Johnny Depp has approached it with dreads. As Jack Sparrow, the charismatic brigand at the center of this old-fashioned yarn, Depp turns his prodigious talents to recasting the screen image of the pirate, coming up with a playfully seductive trickster who combines the swagger of a rock star with Depp's own enticingly androgynous persona. With his hair knotted into Rastafarian ropes and braided with beads and trinkets and seashells, with his kohl-rimmed come-hither eyes and bemusedly bleary English accent, he resembles Keith Richards channeling Errol Flynn by way of Moliere's Scapin, a dandified modern primitive who would rather saunter sexily into his next mischievous adventure than do anything so obvious as leap from rigging to rigging.

The act works. Depp is the single best reason to see "Pirates of the Caribbean" if you're past the age of 10. Or, put it this way: If you're the friend or parent of anyone younger than 10, you have no need to sneak in a paperback and an Itty Bitty Book Light. There's enough sly humor -- from the same screenwriters who penned the subversively funny "Shrek" -- to keep adults amused, even as the film rings in at a tushie-tingling two-hours-plus. This is a Jerry Bruckheimer production, after all: Even as subtle and smart a player as Depp can't keep it from ultimately going overboard.

But unlike most Bruckheimer movies, "Pirates of the Caribbean" manages to have some lighthearted fun on the way to its inevitable more-is-more conclusion. Gore Verbinski, who made his feature debut with the delightful, kinetic "Mouse Hunt" and most recently directed the scary hit "The Ring," here combines his talents for choreographing both comedy and horror. "Pirates of the Caribbean" moves easily from sunny 18th-century seafaring adventure to creepy zombie flick and back again.

Verbinski has also cast his movie well, enlisting a classy group of players to bring its various stories to life: Orlando Bloom, so popular from the "Lord of the Rings" movies, plays Will Turner, a humble but handsome blacksmith with a mysterious past. Will's love interest, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), is the daughter of the colonial governor of the fictional Caribbean island of Port Royal (played in the film by St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as well as various Hollywood back lots). She's betrothed to another, more appropriate military man, but she and Will are brought together by Jack, who enlists them in the search for his lost ship, the Black Pearl. Although Sparrow is the ship's rightful captain, of late it's been guided on the high seas by the nefarious hand of Barbossa, his devious former first mate, played in a gleefully wicked turn by Geoffrey Rush.

Many buckles are swashed, timbers shivered and derring done in "Pirates of the Caribbean," which swings deliriously from sword fight to sword fight thanks to the frantic editing that is now presumably needed to keep the attention of the un-Ritalined younger set. Midway through, the filmmakers introduce another wrinkle in the form of a ghost ship, which is populated by cadaverous wraiths that look as if they stayed on the set of "28 Days Later" a day too long (come to think of it, they bear a striking resemblance to Keith Richards, too). They're only slightly worse for wear than their sentient counterparts, Barbossa's band of scurvy rogues, whose mossy bridgework rivals the hull of their ship as a breeding ground for single-cell life forms. Luckily, this unattractive lot is counterbalanced by Sparrow and Turner's own motley -- and considerably healthier-looking -- crew, as well as the plucky Elizabeth, whose bodice helps earn the film's PG-13 rating with every heave.

There is plenty of cleavage on display in "Pirates of the Caribbean," but nothing more alarming than what an idle glimpse at HBO on a Sunday night would reveal. More difficult to explain may be a movie in which international criminals are the heroes. But such contradictions will no doubt be swept away with Bruckheimer and Verbinski's dizzying action and nonstop editing. In case some viewers find themselves getting a little seasick, a few words of advice: Keep your eyes on the horizon -- or, better yet, on Johnny Depp -- and you'll be just fine.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (134 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for action/adventure violence.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company