By Mike Richardson
Disney, Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp once again conspire to plunder the pockets of cinema audiences with the third sequel to 2003’s surprise smash hit Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, and it’s rubbish. And it’s in 3D.
To put the degree of rubbishness into some context, you have to cast your mind back eight years and remember how much FUN the first film was (something, I admit, that becomes harder with each sequel). The 2003 film was a success against the odds; it was based on a Disneyland ride, the pirate genre appeared to be naught more than cinematic poison (remember Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986), Hook (1991) and Cutthroat Island (1995)). The “stars” Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightley and Geoffrey Rush, were, at the time, hardly box office bankers and “supporting character” (Captain) Jack Sparrow was being played by Johnny (that funny actor who does lots of films with Tim Burton) Depp. His previous three films had been From Hell, The Man Who Cried and Blow (all 2001) and none of them had performed particularly well at the box office.
But…the first Pirates film worked. The plot may have had holes, and it may have gone on for a little too long, but any negatives were blown out of the water by the broadside of the film’s charisma, fun, energy and Mr. Depp put in the performance of a generation. He took what must have been simply a ‘one for the money’ role (ahead of less-popular thespian roles in Finding Neverland, The Libertine and Secret Window (all 2004)) and invested it with such spice, vigour and quite possibly rum, that you couldn’t help but fall for the character and, by extension, the film. The financial success of the first film and the tsunami of goodwill that Jack Sparrow generated made a sequel, or two, the next obvious step.
The sequels came and the aforementioned charisma, fun, energy, humour and goodwill diminished as the numbers increased. Pirates II: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) was bad, Pirates III: At World’s End (2007) was worse. Each sequel was more confused, rushed, nonsensical, coarse and charmless than the last, and relied more and more on the interchangeable personalities of Captain Jack and Johnny Depp. The critical response was poor; the financial response was fantastic. At World’s End was the highest grossing film of 2007, taking in approximately $960 million. I don’t recall anyone asking for more at the time, but Pirates IV was soon green lit.
Disney and Bruckheimer have had four years to sort out the problems in the two previous films, and there were some encouraging signs from the Pirates IV trailer and pre-production buzz. We had more Capt. Jack, the Knightley / Bloom characters were dropped, Penelope Cruz was brought in as the love interest/eye candy lady pirate, Ian McShane was bad pirate Blackbeard, and there was talk of a simpler story (did anyone understand the chest with the heart, that kills the man, who has the ship, that does the thing, with the British (who are not pirates) but there are other pirates who want something that someone else wants, something about a ship, here’s Keith Richards, there’s a monkey, and a demon, and the black spot, and Davy Jones’s Locker…and BIG CGI FIGHT! of the second and third films?) so expectations were high. And it was in 3D.
What was delivered was a 137-minute mess. The plot is a confused muddle that sees various groups attempt to find the Fountain of Youth, for various reasons. Maybe Captain Jack knows where it is, maybe he doesn’t (no-one is quite sure), but he joins with Blackbeard (McShane) and his daughter/first mate (Cruz). She is a former paramour of Sparrow, who either hates him or still loves him (no-one is quite sure) and Barbosa is back (and in 3D) who is working for the British or himself (no-one is quite sure). Along the way there’s a prison break with Johnny Depp pretending to be a judge (not funny), a sword fight between Cruz and Depp (not exciting), a romance between Depp and Cruz (not exciting either), another Keith Richards cameo (now embarrassing in 3D), much running, and sailing, and talking, and some more fighting, and some goblets that make the fountain work, and (3D) mermaids who provide a vital ingredient for eternal life. The McGuffin (plot device) of a mermaid’s tear allows an unnecessary romance to be played out between a boring cleric and a mermaid (in 3D) that is so bland that it makes Knightley and Bloom look like Burton and Taylor.
Johnny Depp was paid a reported $55million to reprise his role as Captain Jack, which pretty much singlehandedly acts as a box office guarantee (the film looks to break the $900million mark inside a month, so it was arguably money well spent). But Depp doesn’t look as cool or comfortable as he once did. Jackophiles get approximately 5 quips that warrant a laugh, that’s about $11million per decent line for Depp (one appears in the trailer and two appear near the end). While the booty that he’s gained from this series will keep him in hats, scarfs, tattoos and cigarettes papers such a tepid performance in such a well-loved role is in danger of shaking his coolest-man-on-the-planet status.
The unexpected star of the show is Ian McShane (yes, Lovejoy!) who is the only person able to tap into the spirit of the 2003 original; he delivers a performance that recalls Alan Rickman at his villainous best. But this sort of film can’t survive on the villain alone, and in the cinema where I saw it there was a heavy air of disappointment hanging like 1970s cigarette smoke over the auditorium, and a sense of embarrassed shuffling every time there was a joke that didn’t work. Worst of all, when a reference to a future film was shoehorned in near the end (when Cruz yells “This isn’t over Jack!” (in 3D) I swear there was an audible groan.
A note to the producers: randomly inserting Judy Dench is not enough to differentiate one of these films from another. Another voyage, regardless of quirky cameo choices, will prove fatal.