23 November 2003 | Igenlode Wordsmith
Finally, a real swashbuckling film to make me laugh
"Even I love Johnny Depp, and I'm male," a previous reviewer declares, tongue in cheek. Well, I wouldn't go quite that far, but there's no doubt whatsoever that when I lost my heart to this film, Johnny Depp's outrageous Cap'n Jack Sparrow had almost everything to do with it. I don't normally review 'current' films, so the very fact that I'm writing this highlights an almost unprecedented event - after endless failures, Hollywood has finally rediscovered the spirit of the classic swashbuckler movie.
With hindsight, I think the one brilliant decision that was made at some point - given a modern production environment - was to *separate the roles* of hero and swashbuckler. You can then have your worthy Costner-type juvenile lead, as required, who has to Come To Terms with his Past (although his eventual fate is a trifle unexpected in conventional terms...) - *but* you can also have your essential and irrepressible swaggering rogue (of course, he totally steals the film from the moment he first appears, but *that's* no hardship!)
The moonlight special effects were overdone, in my opinion - not that they aren't believable, but that they would have been more effective if used more sparingly, for occasional flashes of nastiness rather than solid minutes of battle. However, that's a minor niggle. The stunts are energetic, highly satisfactory, *not* computerised, and on occasion even carried out by the stars :-)
The other saving grace of the production is its humour - not that there aren't a few over-arch knowing references, but on the whole it manages to send itself up without suspending disbelief in the process. Jack Sparrow's first arrival on the scene (with total aplomb aboard a steadily-sinking boat) is a prime example, as indeed are the vast majority of subsequent scenes involving this character...
The basic Romance and Rescue structure is satisfactory enough, with the addition of the requisite Feisty Female for the 21st century (though I felt the character would have been a little more historically plausible if she had been a little less liberated - she clearly possesses a stronger character than her young man, she doesn't have to strive to be his physical equal as well...) However, it is the pirates themselves who really make the film, simply by being a pack of unreconstructed and uninhibited villains (from the Jeffrey Farnol School of Historical Dialect) who are far larger than life and totally unselfconscious about it. To quote the opening words of the 'Guardian' review: "we have been waiting [50 years] for a modern pirate film featuring someone who, in all seriousness, actually says the words, or perhaps the two-syllable single word: 'Ah-harrrrr!'"
Jack Sparrow, as swashbuckler extraordinaire and consummate rogue (of course, totally honest in his own way... ahem) is the main attraction of the entire film. Not so much loopy as totally round the bend - outrageous and unpredictable (there is a running gag throughout the first part of the film where he is repeatedly described as "the worst pirate I've ever seen", as in "the worst at it", only for the preposterous tactics in question to prove spectacularly successful).
This character saves the hero in more ways than one - without him, the film would be another "Mask of Zorro", a rather stodgy attempt to update an old favourite for modern-day sensibilities and compensate with more and flashier sword-fighting (swashbuckling is not *about* fighting! It comes into it, yes, but it's not the point.) But together, the pair work off one another beautifully - reliability and inspired lunacy, self-doubt and cocky flamboyance, dogged devotion and shameless self-interest. The only question is which, precisely, is the sidekick...
There are two beginnings to this film, neither of them bearing any relation to the wooden costume-drama-by-numbers prologue that actually opens the movie. The moment when events start to move (it could scarcely be less subtle) is signalled by the swell of the theme music for the first time at Sparrow's initial appearance. But for me the moment when the film really took off was in that instant during his first escape, when he seizes the rope and swings up, up, and out, in a classic swashbuckler move from the past that brought it all flooding back... and my heart flew up after him into my throat, and remained enjoyably in that position until the end of the movie, when the audience began spontaneously to applaud.
The film is far from perfect - characters like Captain Norrington (*please* - 'Commodore', like 'Prime Minister', is a job description, not a form of address!) and the Governor are little more than pantomime stereotypes, with only frustrating hints of humanity to indicate that they do after all have potential denied them by the script. Annoying anachronisms slip in - "it's okay", "I was rooting for you" - most of the nautical jargon comes out with about as much sign of comprehension as a phonetic rendition of a foreign language, and Sparrow's one precious charge of powder gets soaked through often enough in the course of the plot to be utterly useless by the end. Both hero and heroine come across as wooden and thankless roles. Orlando Bloom may be costumed to look increasingly like Errol Flynn during the course of the film (was it my imagination, or does he spend it gradually cultivating a duplicate of that famous moustache?), but, alas, any resemblance ends there.
But then it doesn't really matter. It is Depp, not Bloom, who has inherited the mantle of Flynn and Fairbanks in this film. Jack Sparrow was the character who caught my imagination - and, since I'm extremely impressionable, also had a distinctly peculiar effect on the way I stood and walked for several hours later. And there's not many films can say *that*..! ÿ