Pirates of the Caribbean 3 Review

by Wardog

Wardog's timbers remain sadly under-shivered.
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This weekend, I saw a performance of King Lear at the Coutyard Theatre in Stratford and a showing of Pirates of the Caribbean 3 at the Odeon here in Oxford. They're comparable in length. Perhaps I am hidebound by literary traditions but I think I can just about forgive Lear - arguably one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies - for being three and a half hours long, I can't quite extend the same patience to a comedy, action romp based on a theme park ride. I know it seems a little churlish to complain about something as seemingly superficial as the length but the increasing sprawl of the last two PotC movies represents a slide into the sort of indulgence and self-absorption that has no place in this sort of film. Somebody somewhere (I forget who and where) said that if you can't say it in an hour and a half, you shouldn't be saying it at all. And this holds true for Pirates of the Caribbean 3: there's an hour and a half of fun in there, and another hour and a half of pointless flab and world building.

Like just about everybody in the world, I loved the first film. Pirates! Zombies! Swordfights! Johnny Depp! You can't go far wrong with such a formula. The second film I felt reasonably positive towards, but, tellingly, I can't remember very much about it. Krakken? Bill Nighy with tentacles! More swordfights? Bad East India Company? Norrington looking dishevelled in Tortuga! I think there might have been an unfortunate sequence with comedy cannibals and some long-winded action involving a millwheel that I didn't mind as much as everyone else because the films have always seemed at their best when they are at their silliest, and you can't get sillier than Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in a millwheel. The third film, however, kicks off unforgivingly (presumably they couldn't squash a "previously on Pirates of the Caribbean" into the already lengthy endeavour) and I spent at least the first twenty minutes vaguely confused and disorientated, not helped by an extended avant-garde detour into the half-mad mind of Jack Sparrow. I'm sure this seemed fascinating to somebody somewhere but, to coin a phrase, where has all the rum gone?

As far as I can work it out, the action begins pretty much exactly where it left off last time round. Jack Sparrow is dead, killed by Elizabeth Swann for spurious reasons I can't recall. Will Turner is hunting down Davy Jones in order to free his father. The East India Company have acquired Davy Jones's heart, thus forcing his collusion in their nefarious profit-mongering schemes. And Captain Barbossa (and monkey!) have been returned from the dead by the voodoo lady from the Monkey Island Games, who is actually the Goddess Calypso imprisoned in human form. What follows is an extended sequence of Searching for Spock...err...I mean...Sparrow. With the return of Captain Sparrow the film finds enough direction and energy to get on with the plot, which involves assembling the nine Pirate Lords in order to release the Goddess and fight the immense armada the East India has spent the last two films assembling.

The film, unfortunately, sags beneath the weight of its own mythology. Although conceptually very cool (nine pirate lords! Davy Jones, the pirate who fell in love with the sea!), the establishment of all this world gets in the way of the fun stuff. The Pirate Lords, in particular, do absolutely nothing. They spend the big battle (for which they were assembled in the first place) essentially hoisting their colours defiantly and cheering, and ultimately offer very little beyond a momentarily cool spectacle. Similarly, the diversion to Singapore was mildly entertaining but the film would have been better served by giving some time and attention to its main characters and plotlines. And, having gone to all the trouble of setting up this grand and tortured love story between Davy Jones and Calypso which is actually strangely affecting, the film doesn't bother to resolve it satisfactorily. I mean, obviously I didn't expect them to settle down and have squids together, but it's the driving mythological backdrop for most of the action and it completely falls by the wayside with the inevitable defeat of Davy Jones.

I also felt rather poorly served in terms of the characters. Yes, there's plenty of Jack and he's on form, as ever, but I could have done with spending less time in his head. Jack Sparrow works for complex reasons, but part of it lies in his opacity. He's always slightly outside the action of the films, slightly too knowing, slightly too manipulative, his decisions and motivations as indecipherable to the audience as they are to himself. His flamboyance sets him apart from the "straight" cast, and his mischievous, camera-directed glances endear him to us and yet make us faintly uncomfortable. There's a joke somewhere, but is it on him, or on us? Sequences of Jack discussing his own behaviour with two mini-Jacks hiding in his dreadlocks don't contribute anything at all.

And since most of the film's time is mopped up by strange stuff about Jack, Will and Elizabeth are poorly served. They break up for no apparent reason, and get back together again for no apparent reason. And although Keira Knightley's character is relentlessly irritating, I missed Will's steadying presence. Johnny Depp's mad, charismatic Jack Sparrow may steal the show but it's Orlando Bloom's Will Turner that makes the thing worth stealing. He's the perfect foil, and you have to give the guy credit for that. Norrington, too, appears just briefly enough to come to a heroic end. So much for one of my favourite characters. Perhaps it's because he's played by a lesser-known English actor (Jack Davenport, he usually plays blokes called Steve) adrift in Hollywood but I've always liked Norrington, and his arc in the second film was one of its more intriguing plotlines. He deserved better than what is basically a cameo in the third movie.

But, to give its due, the last third of the film is genuinely exciting, consisting mainly of a big enthusiastic fight between Davy Jones and crew, and Barbosa, Will, Elizabeth and crew. Geoffrey Rush and Bill Nighy charging their ships towards each other in a mounting storm yelling piratical things with great gusto will stay with me for a long time. And I was surprised and impressed by the less than ideal resolution of the Will/Elizabeth plotline (the saccharine bit at the end of the credits I could have happily done without, however) which I had assumed would dovetail into the traditional romantic ending.

Pirates of the Caribbean 3 isn't terrible by any means and it has its moments. But it feels rather like fan fiction of itself: it's quite fun but it seems to have lost sight of what made it so successful in the first place. For example, the film begins with a chained up line of of pirates moving inexorably towards the gallow while a herald reads about the establishment of martial law in the colonies. I have a feeling this is meant to be pertinent to The World Today but, considering pirates were essentially hardened criminals and murderers rather than happy-go-lucky anarchists defending our civil liberties it doesn't make much sense. Scenes like this, alongside trips into the mind of Jack Sparrow, the heavy-hand mythology, and the inclusion of expensive cameo from Keith Richards (fun though it is) only contribute the awkwardness of the film. Pirates of the Caribbean has always been a peculiarly multi-layered experience, sincere, ironic and frivolous all at once, with Jack Sparrow for its metatextual figurehead; unfortunately Pirates of the Caribbean 3 has essentially crushed itself beneath the weight of it own self-knowing. There's too much meta and not enough text. And not enough sword fighting, dammit.
Themes: TV & Movies
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