Here’s a guy who has spent his entire life standing in the sun. Some of his brain cells have burned off from the heat.
— Johnny Depp on Captain Jack Sparrow, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
All you really need to know about Gore Verbinski’s movie-based-on-a-theme-park-ride is that it stars Johnny Depp. True, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl also features high seas thrills, dazzling visual designs, a prized medallion, a feisty well-born maiden, a working class hero, and a dastardly villain played with rum-guzzling gusto by Geoffrey Rush. And yet, for all the splendid spectacle and swashbuckly plot, Depp is the point of Pirates. As wily, kohl-eyed, colorfully-scarved Captain Jack Sparrow, he is sensuous, sharp, and salacious, the center of attention even when he’s making faces in the back of the frame.
Just so, the film saves Jack for a dramatic entrance, some minutes after it begins by introducing another ostensible focus, one half of the romance that Jack will simultaneously enable and hinder. “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me,” sings a sweet little girl (lyrics of the theme park ride’s theme song). Standing on the deck of a ship, asail on a spookily misty ocean, she dreams of how grand it would be to do so emphatically and joyously, as a vocation. But, poor Elizabeth’s a member of the hoity-toity class, at the moment traveling with her dad, the prissy and presumptuous Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce), who is more likely to hide out in his drawing room than engage in anything resembling adventure.
Elizabeth’s bold yearnings thus established, the film cuts to its present, via a nifty slide through her closed eyes: when she opens them, she’s grown up into a lovely young woman (Keira Knightley), feisty and brainy, still tolerating her father’s lack of vision and nerve. When he arrives with a beautiful new dress in a box, she knows he’s after something (this despite his wussy protestation, “Does a father need an occasion to dote on his daughter?”), and indeed, he wants her to consider the marriage proposal of very proper fine catch British Navy Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport).
Of course, spunky Elizabeth resists this match, with added reason: she’s attracted to nobly inclined but socially awkward blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). But she’s impatient too, and won’t suffer fools. When Will hesitates clumsily during a visit to her home, she’s off and huffing, in search of an adventurer who will sweep her off dry land.
And lo, she finds him, sort of. Jack cruises into town (Port Royal) on a sinking dinghy, literally stepping off the nearly submerged mast onto the dock, nimbly, as if he meant to do it this way. When Elizabeth accidentally falls into the bay, he gallantly saves her from drowning (after observing that no one else is about to do so), which only gets him arrested by small-minded, rules-bound mortals, who think his being a pirate indicates brutality and decadence. A vigorously conducted (if briefly sustained) escape lays out Jack’s striking capacity for old-school pirating, that is, leaping and scampering, swordfighting and dashing. He also wields a devastating charisma. Coming on the well-intentioned Will, Jack pauses, sword drawn. “You seem familiar,” he says. “Have I threatened you before?”
Ingenious and mesmerizing, Jack embodies the film’s essential fantasy (indeed, the very fantasy drawn from the Disney ride, despite protests that raping and pillaging weren’t precisely role modely activities), that a pirate’s life is exciting and unfettered. At the opposite end of the movie’s ideological continuum is Rush’s Captain Barbossa. Years ago, he led a mutiny against Jack, grabbing up his ship, the black-sailed Black Pearl. Literally cursed for his greed, Barbossa now sails on, endlessly and miserably, with a monkey on his shoulder and a (terrifically realized) zombie crew. Only revealing their skeletal undeadness when caught by moonlight, they’re clattery and creepy, and create fabulous effects as they thrust and parry in and out of shafts of light (the CGI aided by Dariusz Wolski’s camerawork and Brian Morris’s production design, and all more inventive than DreamWorks’ soggy Sinbad).
As per pirate tale/movie formula, Barbossa kidnaps Elizabeth, Will endeavors to recover her, and Jack schemes to recover the Black Pearl, willing to use all sides against one another, depending on who has him in shackles at any given moment. Ever an enigmatic master of detail — the sly smile, the raised eyebrow, the startled half-stumble — Depp is here typically offbeat but also frankly lovely, confirming his affinity for the unresolved and unresolvable. Try as his pursuers might, Jack just won’t be recontained by a respectable narrative or social order. No matter that he might do a right thing (inadvertently or on purpose), he maintains his profound strangeness (Depp says he modeled him on a combination of Keith Richards and Pepe LePew).
Throughout his various arrests and abuses by larger and better outfitted men, Jack is singularly concerned with the status of his “effects” (his pistols, sword, and hat, signs of his identity, such as it is), and amusingly attentive to logical lapses (when told by someone who’s “heard the stories” that the Black Pearl’s “crew of miscreants” never leave survivors, he asks, “Then where do the stories come from, I wonder?”). His crew (which includes an angry young woman played by Zoe Saldana) admires him and distrusts him at the same time.
Simultaneously the film’s primary mischief-maker and a skeptical viewers’ stand-in, Jack is the ideal guide amid the mayhem, with no apparent investment other than his (already ridiculous) reputation and his precious “effects.” His officious adversaries alternately refer to him as the “worst pirate I’ve ever seen,” and the “best pirate I’ve ever seen.” As apt to lie outright as to utter anything resembling “truth,” he leaves the difference to you to decipher, if you think it matters.
That Jack is so sensationally irrecuperable only shows up the plot’s silliness, or really, the lunacy of trying to make sense of this preposterously high concept. Produced by the indefatigable Jerry Bruckheimer, it’s at once the perfect summer movie (rated PG-13), and adroit antidote to same (technically, it’s not a sequel, though the case might be made that it deploys the ride somewhat like an “original” text). Pirates, much like the pirates who populate it, acknowledges a certain predetermined “code,” but treats it with good humor, less as a set of rules than general “guidelines,” awaiting creative deconstruction.