Saturday, July 25, 2009
No one thought a film based on a theme park attraction would work. Now, of course, we know true artistic bankruptcy: Michael Bay churned out what amounted to nothing more than overblown product placement with his Transformers franchise and a planned Battleship movie is on the horizon. Then, however, this was about as low as you could possibly get. It was so garish and cheap that even I, a 14-year-old, was so offended by the notion of it that I never saw it in theaters.
What surprised me when I finally caved and watched it on DVD, and now that I re-visit it on Blu-Ray, is how damn good it is. As a piece of witty, escapist fun, few can approach it. It's so self-aware that there's actually a joy in recognizing scenes from the ride, most notably the dog holding a cell key. But there is also a story here, one simple enough to fuel a mindless action flick but also enough to make you care about it beyond its novelty value.
Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the daughter of the regional governor of Port Royal (Jonathan Pryce), spots a boy floating in the wreckage of a destroyed ship as a young girl. In the present, that boy, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) works as a blacksmith's apprentice and pines for Elizabeth, who is set to be married to the up-an-coming naval officer, Norrington (Jack Davenport) against her wishes. After a mishap involving a corset, the pirate medallion Elizabeth found sends out some sort of signal, and later that night pirates swarm the colonial town. Elizabeth is kidnapped, Will vows to save her, and it's as easy as that.
It doesn't sound like very fresh stuff, I'll grant, but it all changes when Verbinski plays his ace in the hole. Captain Jack Sparrow, played with manic glee by Johnny Depp, turns what might have been a serviceable, forgettable blockbuster into one of the best action flicks of the decade. Depp finally has a film big enough to contain his eccentricities, and he unleashes every quirk and mannerism in his repertoire. A mix of Keith Richards and Pepé Le Pew, Jack is an unstoppable mix of dry sarcasm, deceptive idiocy and deft capability. He is always put-upon, and those who must bear with him are soon put-upon themselves. He wants to kill Elizabeth's kidnapper, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) more than Will, though for entirely different reasons. That Depp never becomes just too much of a weirdo is a testament to his ability to stop just short of parody.
Depp buoys the film when it likely would have failed if placed squarely on Bloom's shoulders, as he brings the looks but not much else. He fits snugly into the role of a fresh-faced dolt who ruins Jack's carefully formulated plans through his blunt honesty and impatience, but the few emotional scenes involving just him and Elizabeth just short enough to prevent his lack of range from turning the whole thing into grating, unintentional comedy. Knightley has little to do but look pretty, but to her credit, she does so marvelously. Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook are also sublime as two pirates who serve as a constant source of comic relief in a film that didn't need any specific characters to lighten the mood in the first place.
As I sat down with this first installment, having only seen a single high quality BD in the excellent transfer for Coraline (which bumped up the film into the top tier of the movies I've seen this year), I had no idea what I was in for. The Blu-Ray of POTC is a revelation: the blues of the ocean practically leap off the screen, while the color timing Verbinski and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski use is greatly benefited by this picture upgrade. Obviously, a statement like, "This is the best Blu-Ray I have ever seen" means little, but assuming this film is near or at the pinnacle of what the technology can offer, I'm already in love with the format.
The action is big and glorious without losing track of itself, the plot is just deep enough to make it worth paying attention and the acting from Pryce, Davenport, Rush and especially Depp is magnificent. The Curse of the Black Pearl single-handedly revived the pirate genre (though perhaps it's not fair to call it a revival as they only subsequent pirate films were the sequels to this) by subverting the conventions of the genre: this is not a movie about finding treasure but of returning it, and that one little quirk gives it the spark it needs to make one of the most exhilarating thrill rides you'll ever see.