A film review by Craig J. Koban
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT
2007, PG-13, 170 mins.
Jack Sparrow: Johnny Depp / Will Turner: Orlando Bloom / Elizabeth Swann: Keira Knightley / Barbossa: Geoffrey Rush / Davy Jones: Bill Nighy / Sao Feng: Chow Yun-Fat
Directed by Gore Verbinski / Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio
There is a very small moment in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END where Captain Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp, looks around at most of the characters of the film and matter-of-factly asks, “Did no one come to save me just because they missed me?”
It is at this moment where Depp reaffirmed for me a thought that I have had in my mind while watching this third film in the PIRATES trilogy and both that preceded it:
Depp’s Jack Sparrow is a true cinematic original. No two ways about it.
There has never been a more eccentric and lovably flamboyant pirate – or adventure hero – to grace the silver screen. With his slightly inebriated swagger, his slurred, but eloquently spoken speech patterns, and his latently feminine, flailing hand gestures, Captain Sparrow can now be held in high regard with other classic adventure rogues. Like Connery’s James Bond or Ford’s Indiana Jones, Depp’s Jack Sparrow can now join the upper echelon of memorable on-screen personas of the action genre. As I said in my review for DEAD MAN’S CHEST, to see Depp play Sparrow is to see an actor have a field day at inhabiting a role. When he parades around as the androgynously foppish pirate that looks more like a cross between a drag queen and Keith Richards than most on-screen pirates, then you know you’re in the presence of something special and magical.
It is for that reason – and others to be mentioned – why the apparent third and final film in the PIRATES trilogy, AT WORLD’S END, is the most rousing, adventurous, and wickedly entertaining of all the films of the series. I would go on record that, at times, trilogies are only as good as their third and final films. Clearly, there is cinematic precedence to prove that many third films never can take claim to be the finest in the trilogy (GODFATHER: PART THREE, BACK TO THE FUTURE III, and – more recently – SPIDER-MAN 3, anyone?), and AT WORLD’S END is certainly not a foolproof and perfect adventure yarn. It certainly suffers from one of the issues that hurt the overall worth of CURSE OF TE BLACK PEARL and last year’s DEAD MAN’S CHEST (most specifically: a languishing and overly long running time). When I heard that AT WORLD’S END would clock in at nearly three hours (shiver me timers!) I initially thought that this was the height of indulgent and waterlogged filmmaking.
Yet, perhaps third time’s a charm, because I oddly felt more forgiving of the running time (which could have been a depressing, watch checking endurance test) of AT WORLD’S END because in it’s case it actually builds to something, in its case a climatic and prolonged 50-60 minute series of action and visual effects set pieces that are among the most amazing I’ve seen as of late. I was patient as the film slowly built to this crescendo, and when it did I was offered up this summer’s most visually dazzling, robust, and exciting spectacle. For those that were a bit let down by SPIDER-MAN 3’s lack of intrigue and promise of delivery of something worthy of its previous films, AT WORLD’S END emerges as this season’s big budget blockbuster that wholeheartedly delivers. Not only that, but it also emerges as the best and most impressively mounted of the PIRATES series, and behind it all is that devilish grin of Captain Sparrow, who journeys back from death itself for one final swashbuckler adventure.
Clocking in at a whale-sized 170 minutes, this PIRATES entry begins precisely where the first one left off. As shown in the previous film, Captain Sparrow appeared to die at the hand of the monstrous Kraken and seemed forever trapped in the locker of Davy Jones. The “locker”, as presented, is kind of a state of limbo, a nautical purgatory, where Jack and his ship, The Black Pearl, have been stranded. Good ol’ Jack himself is as plucky and lively as ever, but he is certainly starting to go a bit cuckoo. Not only is he talking to himself, but he begins to hallucinate so horribly that he starts seeing countless versions of himself in various states of mental peril. Jack has never looked so helpless…and kooky.
Meanwhile, we see a recently brought-back-from-the-dead Captain Barbossa (played pitch perfectly again by Geoffrey Rush) who teams up with Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (the gorgeous-as-ever Kiera Knightly) on a mission to the Orient to get the help of Pirate Captain Sao Feng (the well-cast Chow Yun-Fat). Their mission is simple…well…not really: travel to the time and place beyond death and rescue the dead Jack Sparrow. Now, why on Earth would anyone want to capture such a duplicitous and two-faced pirate like Jack? Well, it appears that they desperately need him so they can attend a gathering of the Nine Lords of the Brethren to mule over the fate and future of piracy in the world (it appears, in a grizzly and effective opening montage, that piracy is dealt with very, very harshly by the Brits).
However, the Brits have a ace up their sleeve. The evil Lord Cutler Beckett (played with soft spoken and slimy contempt by Tom Hollander) and one of his men, Admiral James Norrington (Jack Davenport) have secured the tentacle-bearded Davy Jones (the wonderful Bill Nighy) and his ship, The Flying Dutchman. As proven in the previous PIRATES film, Jones' ship and crew are unlike any on earth. Jones himself is a hideous octopus-like humanoid and has a crew that’s a relative smorgasbord of aquatic monstrosities, and their ship can literally submerge and re-emerge from the sea. No other vessel can possible stop it.
But – alas – Turner, Barbossa, and Swann are able to rescue the imprisoned Jack from the other world and soon make their way to the meeting of the Brethren to decide what to do next. This meeting kind of reminded me of the cantina sequence in the original STAR WARS where all types of alien life gathered. In AT WORLD’S END we have all form of pirate from every corner of the planet in attendance to discuss their fate. There is even a very special overseer that is the gatekeeper of all piracy lore and code. He is played by – yes – Keith Richards, who looks astonishingly well as a pirate from 400 years ago. Oh, and unless you’ve been living under a rock and are not up to speed with PIRATES news on-line, he also is Jack’s father. Keith’s role is minimal, but surprisingly low-key and effective. He never hams it up, nor overplays anything, except in one hilarious moment where he reveals the condition of Jack’s mother.
Soon, the film becomes a relative labyrinthin of double crosses upon double crosses and plot twists (you’re never really sure who is good and who is bad in the film, at least until the final act) until we reach a climatic final battle of the seas that pits Davy Jones and the British fleet against Sparrow and company. There is also a lot of sub plot and exposition about a being called Calypso that was imprisoned by the pirate council and now they need her to help beat the Brits. Then there is also the story of Will’s father and how he is imprisoned on Jones’ vessel. And then we have another sub-plot about how Jones became who he was and how he relates to the mystical Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris). And then there is the on-again, off-again relationship between Will and Lizzie…
And so on and so on…
It would be deceptively easy for me to label AT WORLD’S END as overstuffed and wearing out its welcome. Surly, the film is convoluted and has perhaps a bit too much going on in the story department (oftentimes, I found it kind of difficult to figure out who’s who and how everyone relates to one another; this PIRATES film needs a road map). There are times were one could easily be straining to make sense of the story more than actually becoming actively engaged in it. Like THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL and DEAD MAN’S CHEST, AT WORLD’S END is a bit of a frustrating experience in how director Gore Verbinski and the screenwriters overwhelm the narrative a bit too much. I am still not entirely sure why a pirate movie needs to be nearly 3 hours long.
Nevertheless, AT WORLD’S END does make up for its ponderous narrative in terms of sheer, audience rousing intrigue and action. The set pieces and visual sights utterly eclipse anything shown in the previous two films and Verbinksi and company have created some of the most seamless and breathtaking combinations of live action and CGI fakery every committed to the screen. As I discovered with DEAD MAN’S CHEST, I found myself marveling yet again at Davy Jones, who – like Gollum and Yoda – is a computer generated figure that is so effortlessly submerged within the action of the film. The temptation with films like this is to overwhelm the viewer with distracting effects, but Jones here is such a nuanced and detailed creature that the effects almost become invisible: he truly looks and feels like a real creature. This is a credit to the effects team; they certainly have crafted the most realistic CGI creation ever.
The visual effects ingenuity also seems boundless in the film’s climax, where no expense is spared at throwing everything that we have waited two hours for. In a bravura showcase of wonderfully realized effects, stunt work, and editing, the final hour battle has everything, from sword fighting, to ship-to-ship sea battles, to viscous sea storms that creates a huge swirling hole in the sea itself, to gigantic creatures, etc.. Even if the story to AT WORLD’S END tires viewers, there is no doubt that it is redeemed by the breathless pacing and kinetic battle at the film’s conclusion. Again, I think that the PIRATES films deserve considerable praise alongside the STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS as being completely immersing on a visual level. In PIRATES’ case, its fusing of history and fantasy creates an always evocative and thrilling ride. AT WORLD’S END is never dull to look at. The creators have crafted a sea-faring universe that is as transfixing and alluring as the galaxies of George Lucas and Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Also appealing is the way the film handles some of its main characters. Captain Jack, as stated, is always a pleasurably goofy hero who steals every scene he’s in. It’s amazing how he can command the largest laugh from the most innocuous of line delivery (when they all reach the pirate gathering Barbossa says, “There’s not been a gathering like this ever,” to which Jack adds, “And I owe them all money!”). Perhaps even more interesting are the characters of Will and Elizabeth. Will himself and his motivations are never really clearly defined, which makes him a bit more intriguing (he is never a squeaky clean hero in this). Knightly’s Swann has come an awfully long way in the trilogy and has gone from being a damsel in distress to a powerful and commanding presence on the battlefront. Even Davy Jones has moments of interest. There is more scene where he momentarily reverts back to his human form that has a melancholic sadness to it.
The third film in the PIRATES trilogy, AT WORLD’S END, still feels the burden of a bloated running time and too many unnecessary story elements. However, as a slam-bam exercise in swashbuckler derring-do, this “final chapter” in the PIRATES trilogy concludes the series on strong, assured footing. With thrilling and stirring action scenes, some of the most ingenious and photo-realistic CGI visual effects ever conceived, and – yes – Johnny Depp's droll and deprecating performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, AT WORLD’S END makes up for its flaws by being this summer’s best, pure popcorn flick. More than anything, this is the film that proudly holds the trilogy up on its back; it proudly and triumphantly cries out to deserve worthy recognition and comparisons to other classic, out-of-body escapist films. THE PIRATES films may not be the equals to the STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS sagas, but in terms of their boundless spirit, imagination, and complete command of using landmark technology to tell their stories, they certainly deserve to be considered in the within the same range. Thankfully, this "final" film in the trilogy does not walk the plank.
ON STRANGER TIDES (2011) 1/2
And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the PIRATES series:
1. AT WORLD'S END (2007) 1/2
CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL
3. DEAD MAN'S CHEST (2006)
4. ON STRANGER TIDES (2011) 1/2