A Rollickingly Entertaining Ride

  • A dilapidated galleon heads into Port Royal, and atop it stands the proudly scurvy Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). As it glides shoreward, the ship is taking on water and has nearly sunk by the time it reaches land — allowing Jack to step lithely, blithely and with Astaire timing from the crow's nest onto the Port Royal dock. This little scene, reminiscent of a visual gag in a Buster Keaton silent comedy, comes at the start of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, cuing audiences to the suspense, grace and fun of the next two hours.

    The very notion that a fluffy summer action movie should be headed by America's most beautiful serious actor (or seriously beautiful one) paints a flummoxed smile on the faces of Depp's admirers. This is, after all, a film based on a Disney theme-park attraction — not a cool thrill machine like the Tower of Terror or a camp classic like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride but the staid Pirates of the Caribbean. For this project, Depp put aside the nutsy-greatsy auteurs of his past (Tim Burton, John Waters, Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch) to team up with Gore Verbinski, a director whose prime artistic achievement is the masterminding of the Budweiser frog commercials.

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    Maybe Verbinski's talent takes to water. Maybe he took inspiration from the cunning script by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio; their credits include The Mask of Zorro and a lot of bright, clever animated hits (Aladdin, Antz, Shrek). But, honestly, who cares to parse the authorship? Buy a ticket, take a seat, have a ball.

    On the island where Jack has landed, the Governor (Jonathan Pryce) wishes his spirited daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) to marry the local commodore (Jack Davenport). She has eyes for her childhood friend Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). But the island is attacked by pirates more fearsome than the larcenous Jack. The notorious Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) kidnaps Elizabeth to help break a curse on his ship, the Black Pearl. So Jack and Will forge a wary alliance. One wants the ship; the other wants the girl.

    You'll notice nods to old Hollywood tales of the sea and a few jovial citations to the ride. But Pirates uses its sources more as guidelines than as actual rules. This is an original work in an antique mood. The actors and authors all have fun with the genre without making fun of it. Rather, they revive it.

    Each aspect of Pirates shows care and brio. An early sword fight, full of seesaws and somersaults, displays a burly, balletic grace. There's a fine cast of supporting scoundrels, including a pirate parrot and a monkey with vampire teeth. Barbossa's ship has a haunted grandeur and, under moonlight, a timber-shivering secret to reveal.

    Rush and Depp offer a congenial collision of acting styles: the one purring with assured menace, the other weirder, more daring. In a role that requires him to be both the lead and the comic relief, Depp plays the roguish coquette, sporting another of his odd British accents (as in Sleepy Hollow and From Hell). Only he could make this spiked cocktail of quirks so potent and piquant. Now Pirates could give Depp what he may never have wanted: a movie franchise.

    One more amazement: the movie offers a big, savory role to a woman. Elizabeth is not the plot's pawn; she is a queen in the making. Knightley, just 19 when the film was shot, radiates a mature fire through her fresh, patrician beauty. This is one babe of summer who is allowed into the dark center of her film and knows how to illuminate it.

    The picture moves so swiftly in its first hour that one wonders if the energy can be sustained. But the crew has more surprises in store. The biggest one is that a theme-park movie with modest buzz turns out to be the summer's niftiest, most buoyant action adventure.