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Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

You're Still The One

It figures that my five-hundredth movie review would be one of the trickiest to write. I have fond memories of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, but they're tainted by unnecessary sequels so excruciating that I vowed never to revisit the series. I'd forgotten that the original's massive success was fueled by the filmmakers' having given audiences far more entertainment than they'd expected. Black Pearl came out of nowhere with a legitimately good movie adapted from a Disney theme park ride, just as the Wachowski brothers had legitimized Keanu Reeves' leading-man status in The Matrix a few years earlier. In light of the bloated abominations that followed, the heady spectacle of both series' first films seems like a fluke in retrospect.

It took ex Johnny Depp's fun, unique turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in Black Pearl from the cartoon character he would soon become. And knowing that Geoffrey Rush's sinister Captain Barbossa was doomed to a career as a comic foil later on drained a good deal of the menace from his performance here. Judging a film by its sequels is unfair, but sometimes it's impossible to unlearn what you have learned (no matter what Yoda says).

Despite this head full of baggage, I did my best to appreciate Gore Verbinski's film for what it was. Luckily, it's pretty terrific. Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio construct a sprawling epic that feels like history, even though it's probably ninety percent crap.* The story centers on Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the daughter of an English Governor (Jonathan Pryce) who has a crush on a local blacksmith's apprentice named Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). The two met as children, when the Governor's ship rescued will from the wreckage of a burning pirate vessel. As adults, they're separated by a caste system embodied by Norrington (Jack Davenport), the stiff commander of the Governor's naval fleet who intends to marry Elizabeth--whether she likes the idea or not.

Still with me? Good, 'cause that's the simple part of the story. Much of the plot involves several factions chasing down a gold medallion that Will had around his neck when he was pulled from the sea. Elizabeth kept it hidden for years, only to lose it during a fainting spell that sent her over a cliff. When the medallion hits the water, it sends a mystical alarm to the crew of the legendary Black Pearl, a pirate ship crewed by the damned and commanded by Barbossa.

At the same time, the infamous pirate Jack Sparrow comes into port, seeking a new boat to replace the one he's just scuttled. He reluctantly teams with Will to rescue Elizabeth after Barbossa's ghouls kidnap her. I'm condensing the timeline here for brevity, but this is essentially the set-up for another hour-and-forty-five minutes of crosses, double-crosses, chases, battles, and romantic speechifyin'. The Curse of the Black Pearl is dense, and not always in a good way. Many problems that would plague the sequels show up here, but this first outing at least has the benefit of novelty.

Verbinski and company stage a number of cool fight scenes aboard various kinds of ships. Characters make full use of their environments, resulting in fun Mousetrap sequences where a sword cuts a rope that propels someone upward and onto the mast, which has just caught fire, etc., etc., etc. The stunts are exciting because they're practical. Unlike the later movies, there aren't tons of CGI monsters and extras weightlessly flailing about. Here, computer imagery enhances the real-world action and comedy, as with one of Barbossa's men whose wooden eyeball is given to supernaturally wacky behavior.

Of course, the characters ultimately make the film worthwhile. I won't rehash Depp's inspiration for Sparrow, but it was tremendous to watch him create a bona fide movie icon. His boozy comedy carries a current of roguishness that keeps him from being an outright clown. When Sparrow makes an offhanded remark about raping and pillaging, we're reminded that he's really just a smooth-talking, half-mad, alcoholic criminal. The wrong actor could have made an embarrassing mess of things, but Depp gets the balance just right.**

Knightley does fine as Elizabeth, showing just the right amount of vulnerability, spunk, and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, she's made to love Will, a wet sock of a man who spends much of the movie grousing about hating pirates and/or getting captured/rescued. Bloom is promising in the beginning, when it's just him, Elizabeth, and Norrington acting out the polite class warfare scenes from Titanic. But the moment Jack Sparrow shows up, he's upstaged at every turn. Bloom's performance and character are so bland compared to Depp's that he may as well be playing Edward Cullen as interpreted by C-3P0.

Lastly, we have Rush's Captain Barbossa, one of the truly great blockbuster villains of the last twenty years. He's wittily mean-spirited and just smart enough to command a boat full of smelly, undead morons. But he isn't purely motivated by evil; he's a desperate man who wants to retrieve the medallion so that he and his crew can lift a curse that's plagued them for decades. There's a real tragedy to him, a romantic sense of regret that's best exemplified in a conversation he has with Sparrow: Jack thanks Barbossa for leading a mutiny and stranding him on an island years ago--inadvertently sparing him from the curse. A subtle combination of sadness and hatred fall over Rush's face as his character realizes just how great a mistake it was to betray his former partner.

As much as I love these characters, no amount of good will could keep me from fidgeting through a good portion of Black Pearl's middle section. The filmmakers A-Z story makes stops at every letter in between, and even doubles back on some. In these troubling stretches, I maintained by appreciating Verbinski's pleasantly unexpected choices. Little things, like Sparrow sneaking past two idiot guards on a dock (but in a different shot than one would normally expect), or hiding behind a barrel that is shot precisely to give the impression that he's inside the barrel--these made me realize that the director knew what the audience was expecting, and chose to give them more. I also love the fact that the Elizabeth/Will/Norrington issue gets resolved honestly, without the bullshit theatrics and easy-out logic of most movie love triangles.

In the end, The Curse of the Black Pearl is an edit and a re-cast away from being a perfect piece of swashbuckling escapism. It's smart, ambitious, and gorgeous to look at--the climactic battles involving pirates morphing in and out of a skeletal state whenever moonlight falls on them are exciting visual marvels. The film is also a self-contained story that absolutely didn't need a sequel (much less three). Through repetition and greed, the franchise squandered everything that made Black Pearl so strong. Personally, I choose to imagine a world where our slurring, stylish antihero never met the squid-faced Davy Jones or quested for the Fountain of Youth--a world where Jack Sparrow is still Jack Sparrow.

*In verity, not quality.

**Until the sequels, where he makes an embarrassing mess of things.

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