Ahoy, Again

Captains Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, left) and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) team up to make the world safe for swashbuckling in
Captains Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, left) and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) team up to make the world safe for swashbuckling in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." (By Stephen Vaughan -- Disney Enterprises)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007

Funner, biggerer, brightererer, bolderer, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" is not only okay, it may even be close to good. A lavish spectacle illuminated by Johnny Depp's swishing as a slightly dainty pirate captain with better makeup than Paris Hilton, the movie has its dull moments, but not a lot of them.

Longer than the second "Ice Age," can it possibly be worth recapping? Hmm, if you insist. If I fall asleep about paragraph 17, a gentle nudge please. To begin with, our hero from films one and two, Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), is dead. Not to worry. This is a movie based, after all, on a ride, not a story, so there are no rules and no reason why Jack can't be fetched from the grim land he now inhabits. A real-world crisis threatens the pirates, who for some politically incorrect reason have become the symbols of freedom and individuality in a colonial world run by the jackbooted thugs of the East India Company, so Jack's compadres decide he must be rescued to sail the Black Pearl to naval victory.

Thus the first hour -- the film opens in Washington this evening -- is spent in a kind of spectacularly surrealistic afterlife, only visitable by sailing off the end of the world. Think Niagara. Think, uh-oh, it's going to get wet soon, very wet. Sailing a Chinese junk borrowed from the famous pirate Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat, at last in a hit!), the rescuers include all the usual suspects. There's Keira Knightley, so beautiful and spunky it makes your fillings ache, Orlando Bloom, 30 going on 15, and the great Geoffrey Rush, chewing the scenery as if it's pure protein (he may even slip in a genuine "Arrrghhhh!").

When all these talents finally wash ashore, they find themselves in a barren, featureless plain -- it looks like a warm Antarctica as set-designed by Jean-Paul Sartre. Suddenly, Jack Sparrow himself comes sailing over the crest of the hills -- the Black Pearl is moving across the flats using the power of crabs who turn themselves into tank treads. Put that in your I-never-thought-I'd-see file!

Restored more or less to life (I leave out the best trick, when the ship somehow sinks to the surface), Sparrow and his former foe and eternal competitor Captain Barbossa (Rush) reach a kind of rapprochement in executive management policy, given the crisis and all. The crisis? The Company has united with Davy Jones (Bill Nighy behind some kind of ucky squid face) and the Flying Dutchman to wipe out the pirates, who are headquartered at a Caribbean harbor called Shipwreck Cove. It falls to Captain Jack and the others to unite their own fractious bunch of gargoyle-faced, barnacle-souled ruffians into a coherent fighting force to make the world safe for slaughter, rapine, pillage, destruction of property, keelhauling and buried treasure.

So that leaves out only 20 or so minor subplots -- the love affair, off and on again, between Bloom and Knightley, the reconciliation of Jack Sparrow and his pa, Teague Sparrow (Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who else?), Chow's increasing fluency in English, the evil Englishman and true villain Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), the importunings of a beautiful, tattooed black woman named Calypso who turns out to be a 30-foot-tall goddess, the politics of piracy -- each of which kicks in another 15 or 20 minutes of run time. Total: 168. You could do your income taxes in that amount of time.

But it's worth it. Depp's fey foppery is endlessly amusing, particularly when, his arms flapping, he trips the light fantastic from this place to that. You've never seen so many contrapuntal rhythms. His flirty eye movement and prehensile, ironic lids, the flightiness of his fingertips; it's all very funny in the key of "The Birdcage." And this is truly a beautifully designed movie. The first third, set in and around old Singapore, has a romantic Oriental brilliance to it, starlit and mysterious. Now and then a scene leaps out at you. Depp, commanding his ship (crewed by replications of Depp) in the desert of the afterworld, will linger in your imagination, as well as a startling scene where that night's harvest of the sea -- those who've died -- are intercepted on their way to Davy Jones's locker, each in a single rowboat, each with a single lantern, on a placid, glowing surface.

Then there's the acting, all of it splendidly hammy and yummy, with one severe exception. I would single out Hollander as the nasty English lord. Everyone else has the advantage of elaborate makeup and outfit by which to make an impression, yet few register as precisely as Hollander. His demeanor is absolute, icy calmness, no matter what is occurring. He refuses to be startled, cowed, intimidated or uncertain. He has the granite solidarity of the empire he serves. Yet all this is accomplished not by a man of towering beauty and charisma but by a rather ordinary chap, whose personality dominates all the festooned dingbats who come before him.

And finally, there's a last fight, a real lulu. It's a sea battle in a maelstrom between the Black Pearl and the new British command vessel, the Flying Dutchman, heavily armed but rotting. The two heavy sea-beasts spin about the centrifugally driven speed of the water, angling to come within broadside range and send a barrage of 18-pound ball across the narrow distance; when their masts cross, airborne troops swing from yardarm to yardarm to light on the enemy deck and put steel to crew. It's a wonderfully planned and executed battle that captures exactly the color and glamour of the old-fashioned kind on the back lot at Warner's, where Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone skewered and counter-skewered each other. Yet it's also amplified by the most gargantuan yet amusing CGI-driven backdrop and imagery, all cut to the speed of a tinker's dance.

Against this, the problems are small. Too many post-battle cute endings (about six; feels like 24). Then, the director, Gore Verbinski (he directed the first two as well), doesn't get much out of the Depp/Richards meet; these two versions of each other ought to really get some mojo working. The Bloom-Knightley game could be sprightlier.

But it's the first "Pirates" movie I've walked out of without thinking, "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of Tums."

Pirates of the Caribbean (168 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild but vigorous violence and scenes of monsters and other frightening images.

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