There is a moment late in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End when Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush and Keira Knightley stride three abreast to a summit meeting of sorts. Adorned in their elaborate getups, from boots to cloaks to unique hats, they personify pirate cool.
Watching three generations of terrific actors who have poured so much talent and energy into their roles over three films, I had to acknowledge that even though I haven't been the biggest fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, these characters have earned their iconic status. They are part of pirate movie lore.
If Erroll Flynn, Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. could see the ridiculously entertaining action sequences in the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, they'd drop their swords in amazement. The sets, costumes, stunts and special effects are beyond what anyone could have dreamed during the Golden Age of the pirate movie.
Not that there's much in the way of actual pirating going on in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Everyone's too busy restoring life to dead creatures, cracking jokes, debating pirate law (who knew?), lifting curses, switching allegiances and coping with hallucinations, among other problems, to engage in anything so mundane as storming a ship and making off with the loot.
There's even a temporary rum shortage, for shiver-me-timber's sake. Clocking in at 170 minutes, this is one long, convoluted and intermittently inexplicable pirate epic -- but it's worth seeing for the jaw-dropping action, the doses of irreverent humor and of course, the star power of Depp, Knightley, Rush, Orlando Bloom, Bill Nighy, Chow Yun-Fat and a host of other talented actors who utter their lines with Shakespearean gusto, even if they're dripping wet and pretending to do battle with CG creatures.
Many swashbuckling flicks are heavy on the swordplay and light on the plot machinations, but all of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are dense with storylines that sometimes careen off the course of logic altogether. At times I had little idea what the characters in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End were talking about, what they were after, why the pirate who used to be a good guy is now a bad guy, and vice versa. Babel was easier to follow.
But does it matter? We're here for the explosions and the swordplay and the crackling one-liners. We're here to watch Depp's increasingly fey Captain Jack Sparrow sashay his way in and out of trouble. We're here to see if Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann will find everlasting love, or be torn apart by evil forces. We're here for the overhyped cameo by Keith Richards, perhaps the only human alive who would need minimal makeup and little wardrobe help to play a craggy-faced pirate of the early 19th century. (The good news is: Richards is great fun in a tiny role.)
On those counts, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End delivers. Director Gore Verbinski and the stunt and special effects crews have created one of the most impressive blends of live-action work and CGI wizardry ever put on film. When you see a ship literally rising from the sea, or half-men, half-fish doing battle with pirates, you know it's not all real, but it sure looks that way. (I'm reasonably sure Bill Nighy didn't undergo radical reconstructive surgery to have tentacles attached to his face.)
One of the conceits of Pirates of the Caribbean movies is that "dead" is a relative term. As we pick up the action in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Captain Jack Sparrow is trapped in Davy Jones' locker, as the saying goes -- and he often hallucinates other Jack Sparrows of various sizes and dispositions, creating a kind of Being John Malkovich effect. Rush's Captain Barbossa is back from the dead, Will Turner's father is a barnacle-faced captive on the ferocious ghost ship The Flying Dutchman, Naomie Harris' Tia Dalma might not be human at all, and Nighy's Davy Jones is a literally heartless, octopus-faced tyrant who has a moment of humanity in which we get to see his actual human features. At least one other major character suffers a shocking death, but he doesn't seem to be too upset about it. If that doesn't make sense to you, well good -- because it confused the hell out of me as well.
After Will, Elizabeth and Barbossa rescue Captain Jack, they team up to do battle with the evil Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) and the East India Company, which has gained control of The Flying Dutchman and is systematically wiping out the pirate population. In a council meeting that's like something out of Star Wars, the colourfully costumed, multi-ethnic Nine Lords of the Brethren Court convene to debate how best to fend off Beckett and Davy Jones.
And let's not forget the sea goddess Calypso, who was imprisoned by the very council that now needs her. If they set her free, will she kill them all, or help them defeat the mighty forces of Lord Beckett?
It's hard to care about a lot of this, especially when some of the characters are spouting pirate law in accents thicker than the braids in Depp's hair. The tension between Elizabeth and Will also seems a bit contrived, with both characters alienating each other for the sake of the plot. If their love is timeless, why so many betrayals and misunderstandings? (The manner in which their fate is resolved is sure to surprise and tick off some Pirates of the Caribbean fans. Suffice to say their honeymoon is weirdly truncated.)
These quibbles aside, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End rarely drags and is almost always entertaining. Everyone gets their moment of truth and/or triumph, with Knightley's Elizabeth attaining a particularly spectacular level of empowerment. Even when the story frustrates, the acting and the visuals never disappoint.
Will there be a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean instalment? There are enough resolutions in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End to make this a satisfying bookend -- but enough loose ends to spawn numerous sequels or spin-offs. It's hard to imagine Johnny Depp putting on the gold teeth and affecting the drunken-Brit accent yet again.
A great pirate, like a great baseball player, should know when to sail into the sunset. It's probably time for Captain Jack Sparrow to hang it up. Depp has owned this role, but aren't we ready to see him return to more substantial fare?