For whatever it’s worth, Jerry Bruckheimer’s reputation as action-movie impresario par excellence will remain largely unscathed by Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the first to arrive of the producer’s two summertime opuses (with Bad Boys II due for delivery next week). Like most of the movies Bruckheimer has brought us over the past two decades — on his own and collaborating with his late producing partner, Don Simpson — Pirates of the Caribbean hurls you about its narrative with thunderous bombast, like a really expensive theme-park ride. The movie is big and loud from the start, and the $100-million-plus budget is indisputably up there on the screen, having bought an elaborate period production design, and loads of digital visual effects that were, reportedly, almost not finished in time for the movie’s premiere. And it’s more than fitting — isn’t it? — that Bruckheimer should be the first, in that dog-chasing-its-own-tail world of studio “tentpole” movies, to propose the conversion of a venerable Disneyland attraction into a hit summer movie (instead of vice versa).
But having successfully reversed the natural order of things, even Bruckheimer must pay the price for playing God. Like the woeful Gladiator (and Moulin Rouge and Chicago) before it, Pirates arrives with all the trappings of manufactured novelty, the much-fretted-over (by many well-paid marketing consultants) conviction that it’s something exciting and new, mainly because it’s been so long since the last of its kind. And indeed, the pirate movie, once a reliable Hollywood subgenre, has been seen about as infrequently in recent years as the sword-and-sandal epic (or the big-budget musical), with two pricey attempts at revival — Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986) and Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995) — doing little more than bankrupt their respective financiers. However, neither of those movies bore the Walt Disney Pictures imprimatur (as does Pirates of the Caribbean, though the PG-13 rated film is perhaps the most graphically violent ever to do so) or had the good fortune of coming along in this age of everything-old-is-new-again.
Pirates will certainly make a bigger splash than its immediate predecessors, though its success will be rooted more in its ad campaign and fortuitous timing than in anything particularly innovative about the story — or the treatment — itself. Perhaps realizing what a sure-bet concept they were sitting on, screenwriters Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio and Jay Wolpert have given the Pirates script everything but their all: It’s cobbled together out of drawing-room scenes and action-movie scenarios as stiff as the corset drawn tightly about the movie’s beautiful young heroine (Keira Knightley). (The movie can’t even be bothered to steal from good examples of the genre, such as Albert Parker’s 1926 The Black Pirate.) Meanwhile, director Gore Verbinski hasn’t brought an ounce of inspiration or imagination to the project that wasn’t already there on the page. Which may be exactly as Bruckheimer wanted it.
A prolific Hollywood workhorse, Verbinski is the sort of filmmaker who has a reputation for taking care of business on time and on budget. (No matter that he hasn’t made a good film since his debut feature, Mouse Hunt, in 1997.) He even sometimes lends a helping hand to troubled projects (like last year’s The Time Machine). Which also makes him a reminder of just how much Bruckheimer, who began his career by supporting the work of such maverick talents as Michael Mann and Paul Schrader, has come to rely on proficient hacks to pump out his signature orange-and-blue-tinted assembly-line action spectacles. What, after all, can you say about a producer for whom Michael Bay — in movies like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor — represents the greatest potential threat to his own unimpeded authorship of a movie?
Presumably, Wolpert (get this, a former game-show producer) was the one to come up with the movie’s forlorn premise: A set of looted gold pieces must be reunited in order to break their cursed hold over the pirates who stole them. (Wait a second: Wasn’t that one of the challenges on last week’s episode of Dog Eat Dog?) Elliot and Rossio were probably solicited to pump the dialogue full of catty one-liners on the order of their animated hit Shrek, so that Johnny Depp (as the pirate anti-hero Jack Sparrow) and Geoffrey Rush (as the pirate villain Barbossa, who suffers the wrath of the cursed gold) could step into the ogre-and-ass routine vacated by Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy. The actors are up to the task: Depp, with dreadlocked hair and braided goatee, swishes and glides through every frame like a younger, gayer Captain Morgan (or maybe like a brilliant actor who’s happy to be picking up a fat, easy paycheck), while Rush jiggles his eyes madly about, stoked on his own nefariousness.
But even as the jokes fly faster and more furiously than the movie’s slashing sabers, Pirates of the Caribbean quickly reveals how exhausted such shtick becomes when it isn’t being animated by Shrek’s colorful computer-generated imagery. Here Verbinski’s pacing is glacial as he baby-steps us through the tiresome business of a young noblewoman (Knightley), her vying upper-class and lower-class suitors (the latter of whom is played by The Lord of the Rings’ Orlando Bloom) and the protracted kidnapping that finally gets this dry-docked enterprise out on the open sea. At which point, Verbinski shows himself to be an inept orchestrator of action scenes: His sword fights have no forward thrust, no death-defying grandeur, and when his pirates swing about in the rigging, swooping from one neighboring ship to the next on vinelike halyards, you don’t feel at all like you’re soaring right alongside them. (If there was one thing Cutthroat Island had going for it, it was superb stunt choreography and a crack sense of how to shoot and edit it.) Yet this may be more than enough to satiate most audiences, particularly those loath to admit defeat after shelling out for a family night at the movies.
The folks at Disney seem particularly protective of this one, even by their own insanely overprotective standards. The show of security at a recent press screening was among the most absurd yet in the major studios’ ongoing anti-piracy circus, rivaled only by preparations for a flight on El Al. On the other hand — evidently terrified, in its terminal PC-ness, of Song of the South– or Charlie Chan–style protests by swashbuckler activist groups — Disney has made sure that Pirates of the Caribbean all but endorses its protagonist’s lifestyle, the message being that it’s really okay to pirate stuff (except, of course, where Disney products are concerned). But the treasure hunters who do manage to sneak a video camera into a screening of Pirates will emerge gravely disappointed. The booty here is 100 percent fool’s gold.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN | Directed by GORE VERBINSKI | Written by TED ELLIOT, TERRY ROSSIO and JAY WOLPERT, from a story by STUART BEATTIE | Produced by JERRY BRUCKHEIMER | Released by Buena Vista Pictures | Citywide
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