When the first Pirates of the Caribbean film was announced, there weren’t a lot of people who had high hopes for it. Oh, I knew I’d go see it, but I didn’t expect much. The only exception to this I know is my friend Doug, but he’s not an objective voice on this one. Doug will watch anything with wooden ships and/or pirates in it; he actually liked Cutthroat Island. And then the reviews started coming in. Gore Verbinski had done the unthinkable and created something far more than anyone thought possible: a genuinely good and entertaining film based on a theme park ride. Usually it goes the other way—movie first, theme park ride second.
We get a nice tease at the start when young Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley eventually) not only rescues a young boy named Will Turner (Orlando Bloom after the opening scene) from a ship that has been raided by pirates. Will is wearing a medallion that looks suspiciously like it should belong to pirates, and since the penalty for piracy is death, she hides it.
Jump forward a decade and Elizabeth is grown up and appears to be a suitable marriage match for the newly minted Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), at least in the eyes of her father, Weatherby Swann (Jonathan Pryce), the governor of the Caribbean port town of Port Royal. Will Turner has been apprenticed to the local drunken blacksmith and has used his time making swords and training with them. See, Will has a problem with pirates.
Enter Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a pirate captain who is alternately completely incompetent and brilliant. Jack wants nothing more than to reclaim his old ship, the Black Pearl, which was stolen from him in a mutiny by his first mate, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). As it happens, Jack finds himself imprisoned and the Pearl arrives in Port Royal. The crew of the ship, once Jack’s crew, has been cursed by a treasure they stole. They need the medallion that Elizabeth possesses to break the curse.
And thus we have swashbuckling battles, sea fights, and some tremendously good action for close to two and a half hours. It’s a fast two and a half hours in no small part because it’s entertaining as hell.
Much of the entertainment value of the film comes from a few key performances. First, of course, is Johnny Depp, who was Oscar-nominated for what is essentially a long impression of Keith Richards. Depp’s performance immediately became iconic as one of the great acting roles of the new century. Equally fun is the scenery chewing of Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa, who manages not only to incorporate every pirate stereotype and still create a fresh and interesting character.
Beyond that, we have the stooges both on the naval side and on the pirate side. For the Royal Navy, we have Murtogg (Giles New) and Mullroy (Angus Barnett), who are a both half comic relief and half straight man. They even get their own heroic moment near the end of the film. On the pirate side, Pintel (Lee Arenberg) and Ragetti (Mackenzie Crook) play essentially the same roles, just with comic malice.
Even this pales in comparison to the excellent action sequences that run through the film. This is swashbuckling at its best, and big-budget film stunts at their best. Everything that anyone would want in an action film is here, and there’s no skimping on the stunt work or the action sequences. There’s also no shortage of humor or scares. The effects work is brilliant throughout. The undead sailors are obviously an effect, but they look great.
Okay, there are some problems with the plotting (watch the sequence at the end with Jack’s shot and when the coin goes into the chest). So what? This is tremendously entertaining stuff all the way through. It’s the sort of film that is exactly what it should have been. It doesn’t take itself seriously, but is serious enough that it’s not played for farce. It has something in it for everyone who might come across it—action, romance, comedy, scares, and supernatural fun.
You know what sucks about it? It ended up being such a success that it spawned a series of films that have become increasingly silly and less and less relevant. The reviews and IMDB ratings for these films have consistently fallen, from film to film. Of course there’s going to be a fifth one, more’s the pity. If only they could have left well enough alone and let Jack Sparrow be the icon he was meant to be instead of the cartoon character he’s become.
Why to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: It’s far more fun than the theme park ride on which it is based.
Why not to watch: Where the series went after this.