Sunday, July 26, 2009
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest became and remains Disney's most successful film in their history, grossing over $400 million in the United States alone and over a billion worldwide. Über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and the filmmakers, unfortunately, interpreted this as some sort of mandate, that the tonal shift of the film drew audiences in, as opposed to the hype of seeing Johnny Depp. It's understandable, I guess; many people confuse box office gross with quality. Why, right after Transformers 2 came out, I found myself in an argument with someone who cited its high gross with proof that I was just being "difficult." Hell, Ben Lyons is a paid...I don't want to say professional who receives money for offering up thought about whether a film will make money or get Oscar noms and bases his opinion entirely on those two criteria.
Then again, the filmmakers clearly didn't underestimate the Depp factor, because they did the unthinkable with this movie: they gave us so much Johnny Depp that I finally didn't want to see any of him by the end of it. Trapped in Davy Jones' Locker after being devoured by the Kraken, Jack Sparrow is to spend eternity captaining a beached Pearl with a crew made entirely of copies of himself. These scenes allow Depp to be even crazier than usual, but they elicit no laughs, only glaces at watches. Perhaps Verbinski thought that drawing out these scenes to excruciating lengths would make them existentialist or at least deep in some way, but they are simply turgid.
"What exactly is going on here anyway?" you may ask yourself, unaware of what a mistake you just made, because the first hour of this insufferably long picture is all about endlessly, endlessly explaining things. Barbossa's back from the dead? Why? Because he's a pirate lord, and the pirate lords must all convene for the Brethren Court to combat Beckett, who know controls Davy Jones and, therefore, the seas. Barbossa never transferred his "lordship" to another, so he must attend regardless of living status. Jack didn't either, so he, Will, Elizabeth and the Pearl crew must travel to the edge of the world and beyond to save him. Wait, if Jack never passed on his piece of eight, how did Barbossa, a lowly first mate before he stole Jack's ship, become a lord? Oh, whatever.
The voyage to the beyond is disorienting and bewildering, and not even the wondrous special effects can distract you from trying to piece together the logic of these sequences. I can appreciate Verbinski trying to make something deeper than just a threequel for a movie about a ride, but damn it, where did the fun go? But they get Jack and all is well, at least until he hallucinates the other Jacks every now and again.
The second hour doesn't improve vastly on the first. Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) is a wasted character who removes Elizabeth from the rest of the crew just so she can be promoted to pirate lord when this vacuous plot killer finally ventures down to Davy Jones' Locker himself. At least it provides Knightley with the opportunity to become a full-on ass-kicking machine. She reveals some half-decent comic timing, but you'll be too busy watching her fight to focus on it.
Knightley is one of the bright spots of the film, as is that worst-kept secret of Keith Richards' cameo. He barely has any lines at all, but he's such a natural I imagined him showing up on set already wearing the clothes he wore in the scene. "Oh, wow, you brought your own costume," Verbinski would have said. "What costume?" Richards growled quizzically. It didn't take a psychic to predict that Richards, the basis of Sparrow to being with, would work, but his too-brief (though perhaps just right) scene gives us a blast of fun that is so terribly missing in the rest of the film.
Occasionally, that darkness pays off, though. In the final 40 minutes, Verbinski and ILM throw everything under the sun at us. You've giant whirlpools, battles between not two or three ships but entire fleets, a marriage in the middle of swashbuckling. You've even got a woman-god who turns into a bunch of crabs, and for what else could anyone ask? It's a freewheeling marvel that contains all the fun of the first film and what patches of it there were in the second into one glorious package, only to end on a, frankly, brilliant and dark climax.
But those 40 minutes cannot salvage the nearly 2-1/2 hours that precede it. Even Davy Jones, so magnetic and sympathetic in the first film, actually becomes less interesting when the totality of his story is explained. Geoffrey Rush is a breath of fresh air as Barbossa, but he lacks the intimidation factor he had in the first and now does little more than play straight man to Depp. Bloom is on-screen for such a minute amount of time that I can scarcely remember seeing him only a few hours after watching it. Depp too, for all his clones, takes up far too small a percentage of the film's length, and that affects the film more than anything else.
When I sat down in the theater and endured this movie for the first time, I found myself so incensed by its interminable length and turgid exposition that I never watched any of the other films again. While I feel know that said reaction was harsh, I find myself only slightly more charitable now. At World's End is a bad movie. It's bad as a sequel and on its own. Elizabeth is the only one to walk out of the film more or even just as interesting as she was at the start, while formerly fascinating characters such as Jones and Jack are buried under exposition and self-parody. When Jack and Mister Gibbs recite the pirate code, "Take what you can, give nothing back" at the end of the film, it's hard not to think of Bruckheimer and Disney, letting Verbinski haphazardly throw in ponderous, arty elements to what should be nothing more than an action thrill ride, simply because they know the people will come.