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

Murtog (Giles New): If he were telling the truth, he wouldn’t have told us.
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp): Unless, of course, he knew you wouldn’t believe the truth, even if he told it to you.
Pirates of the Caribbean

Gore Verbinski: You have to pervert this genre at every opportune moment.
Johnny Depp: One must be a pirate.
Pirates of the Caribbean DVD commentary

“Many many many many many many many many hours of swordfighting.” This is how Johnny Depp remembers Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Watching his first swordfight in the film, with the nobly inclined but socially awkward blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Depp and director Gore Verbinski note that while the beautiful costar didn’t need so much practice, as he had made three Lord of the Rings movies, Depp spent serious time learning the moves, so that Captain Jack Sparrow could be poised and everready — in a word, the Muhammad Ali of swordfighters.

It’s an apt description: Jack is the movie’s delightful whirling center. Though Pirates conspicuously features high seas thrills, dazzling visual designs, a prized medallion, a feisty well-born maiden, and a dastardly villain played with rum-guzzling gusto by Geoffrey Rush, it is built around Johnny Depp’s performance. For all the splendid spectacle and swashbuckly plot, the 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, Jack makes a dramatically late entrance, nine minutes in, after the film has introduced its other ostensible focus, the romance that Jack will simultaneously enable and hinder. Elizabeth first appears as a child, singing “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me” (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 spending her life at sea. This rankles her father, Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce), who is more likely to hide out in his drawing room than engage in anything resembling adventure.

The child’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 beguiling Keira Knightley. Feisty and brainy, she tolerates 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, who, in the making-of documentary, describes his character as “basically the scourge of piracy in the eastern Caribbean; I suppose I bring light where there is dark, and air freshener to where pirates have recently vacated”).

Spunky Elizabeth admirably resists this match, with added reason: she’s attracted to Will. 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. She finds him, sort of, when Jack cruises into Port Royal on a sinking dinghy (“Uh-oh,” says Depp when he sees himself astride the mast, “Thar she blows”). Jack literally steps 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, not to mention his 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, that a pirate’s life is exciting and unfettered. That this is drawn from the much-criticized fantasy of the theme park ride that gives the film its title and subject matter is no small matter here: Depp and Verbinski note more than once the complexities of dealing with expectations from both Disney and Bruckheimer, including the “McDonalds cups and Happy Meals,” and their efforts to release the “monster in Captain Jack.”

Disney’s DVD of Pirates, neatly released in time for Christmas, features three commentary tracks on the first disc, the first by Depp and Verbinski (whose conversation is gently comedic, and very appreciative of their fellow cast and crewmembers); another for “selected scenes,” by Bruckheimer, Davenport, or Knightley; and then another by writers, grouped by their crediting (Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Woolpert), unnecessarily explaining plot and character (and, for one, the “great fun” of the “collection of props” that comprises a pirate ship: “You can go on forever, just throwing stuff at each other”). The writers underline their desire to include great character actors, including the gnarly pirates, as well as Murtog (Giles New) and Mullroy (Angus Barnett), and point out that the Tortuga scene is one of several “ride references,” with pirates chasing girls, drinking from barrels, and lying with pigs.

The second disc is altogether too much Disney. Though it offers up featurettes galore, including “An Epic At Sea” (the requisite making-of doc), “Below Deck” (an interactive history of pirates), “Diaries” (of a pirate, a ship, and a Bruckheimer), and a horribly scored “Blooper Reel,” the disc is weighed down by Disney logos, links, and self-advertisements. The ride and merchandise tie-ins are overkill here, and besides, the ride is pretty sinister (as Verbinski puts it, driving up to San Diego with the family when he was six, the ride “kinda freaked me out, it was like scary and funny, and that kind of perverse sense of humor”).

At the same time, the ride might also grant the film its movement, its sense of restlessness. Jack is fully in motion within himself at any moment, beside himself with twitches and eye-rollings. Verbinski repeatedly praises Depp’s instincts and improvisations, then observes over one scene (the “parley” scene), “And you’re doing Pepe Le Pew, you’ve got some really unique mixture happening there!” Depp and Verbinski’s discussion is increasingly entertaining and instructive, as they contemplate the return of epic filmmaking via digital expense-cutting, a shared reluctance to plan every moment (Verbinski says, “If you completely storyboard a movie, you neuter the possibility for happy accidents, and it becomes clinical”), and a mutual appreciation for chaos.

Opposite Jack is Captain Barbossa (played by Geoffrey Rush; Depp proclaims his love for his yellow, “Hepatitis D eyes”). 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 resourceful production design.

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.

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. Pirates, much like the pirates who populate it, acknowledges a certain predetermined “code,” but enhances and twists it, treats it with good humor, less as a set of rules than general “guidelines” in need of creative deconstruction.