What you’ve heard about Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is more or less true: the movie exists for Johnny Depp and wouldn’t exist without him. Given a role in a big-budget Disney film, Depp goes at it as though it were a private, subversive experiment; he plays the scurvy pirate Jack Sparrow (“Captain Jack Sparrow,” he always clarifies) as a gay Gary Oldman (think Drexl in True Romance) channeling Hunter S. Thompson. His mannerisms are so specific that when co-star Orlando Bloom, as the comparatively bland hero Will Turner, briefly mimics Jack’s loopy motions, it gets a big laugh. Like many another great farceur, Depp stylizes Jack’s constant drunkenness, achieving a kind of addled grace.
The rest of Pirates of the Caribbean is competently mounted if essentially uninspired action-adventure, with some anti-climactic moments, some cavernous dead spots, and a generally sputtering pace. The premise is that a crew of cursed, undead pirates are looking for the final piece of Aztec gold that will lift their curse. Political daughter Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) possesses this piece, which she plucked off the semi-conscious body of Will Turner when they were both children. Will, a blacksmith now, loves Elizabeth from afar, but skunky imperialist Norrington (Jack Davenport) claims her hand, with the approval of her obsequious governor dad (Jonathan Pryce).
The dynamic is familiar: the sincere Will is Luke, the imperilled Elizabeth is Leia, and the disreputable scoundrel Jack is Han Solo. Pirates of the Caribbean comes closer to the uncomplicated thrills of the original Star Wars trilogy than George Lucas’ own recent Star Wars attempts have. When the movie sticks to simple pleasures — like the deftly choreographed duel between Will and Jack (hey, where’s Grace and Karen?) when they first meet — it’s fine. But the script suffers from the common clever-writer affliction of forced linkage, wherein everything has to be connected in some way. A late-inning revelation about Jack, for instance, diminishes his stature as a flawed, human anti-hero, and the bitter history between him and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), the commander of the zombie-pirate ship the Black Pearl, feels a bit rote.
POTC is amiable fun (if draggy at two hours and fourteen minutes) but almost instantly forgettable, except for Johnny Depp’s running self-amusement. Director Gore Verbinski seems to lack focus and personality; he’ll direct any high-concept stuff you toss his way, whether a kiddie farce (MouseHunt), a romantic comedy (The Mexican), a remake of a Japanese horror smash (The Ring), or now a screen version of a Disneyland ride. Verbinski and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Shrek, Treasure Planet) are serviceable second-tier hacks who lucked into big hits and now appear to have sworn never to endanger their status as rainmakers.
A pirate movie — especially a modern one like this or Cutthroat Island (much more fun, I thought) — has the advantage of those massive, suicidal sea battles wherein two ships float within yards of each other while firing cannonballs back and forth. (One neat moment: Jack’s crew runs out of cannonballs and has to load the cannons with whatever comes to hand.) There’s the obligatory sailing-in-a-violent-storm bit, and much growling and baring of rotten teeth, and poor, delicately beautiful Keira Knightley gets passed from man to man and ship to ship while stifling in a tight corset. Bah. Give me Geena Davis’s freewheeling pirate queen in Cutthroat Island any day; helpless purity is hard to care about.
If POTC is to be remembered, it will be for the effortless skewed professionalism of Johnny Depp, who has become one of our great chameleons and one of the most honorable and inquisitive stars in the business. Depp approaches Jack as a colorful supporting role — the movie’s main arc belongs to Orlando Bloom, who doesn’t do much here that he didn’t do as Legolas — and he throws vanity to the wind and creates a surly wreck of a man who nevertheless can rise to the moment and turn into a fierce warrior. Conceptually, the character is tired, but what Depp does with it has the restless energy of a hungry character actor trying to break through in a big summer movie. Depp, however, doesn’t care about breaking through; he’s done that already. He just wants to keep himself interested and entertained, and he takes us with him.