As conceived by director Gore Verbinksi, Pirates is fast-moving, wilfully complicated and, most importantly, fun filmmaking, so the briefest of synopses is best, rather than spoil any surprises. After a hugely enjoyable introduction, we discover that Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has yet another secret. Years before, Sparrow sold his soul to the king of the oceanic underworld, the fearsome Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), and is now desperate to find a way to hang on to it. With time running out, Cap’n Jack drags the young lovers, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly), into the mess, not knowing that they in turn have been sent to recover the mystical compass he wears around his neck, for the new sheriff in town, Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander). If they fail, Turner and Swann can never get married, and Sparrow will become one of Davy Jone’s phantom ghouls, trapped forever on his hulking ship, The Flying Dutchman.
These are the kind of pirates that Disney loves. In story terms, like The Empire Strikes Back, this is a movie smack bang in the middle of an epic saga, and one that was shot back to back with the third instalment which we will see in 2007. The original was Jerry Bruckheimer's biggest hit by literally hundreds of millions of dollars. Depp even has it in his contract that Disney will pay to make two films of his choosing for every Pirates film he gives them in return. Since the first film, the three main actors have gone on to better things (like Oscar nominations) but the films belong to Depp, who is just a joy to watch, as much a villain as a hero, a bastard as he is a best mate. Jack Sparrow tells lies with a fluency and grace and with never a thought to his being found out, which makes him a very attractive character. From the time we are re-introduced to him here, with his full-range of oi’s and tics and whistles, it is impossible to take your eyes off him. As a display of cinematic charisma and joyful expression, and comic timing, there hasn’t been a performance to match his limp-wristed, elegantly wasted squalor all year.
Knightly and Bloom can’t hope to keep up with Depp, which doesn’t stop them trying. Bloom brandishes his cutlass with perfectly acceptable swagger but Knightly fades badly, not helped by her insistence on wrinkling her brow and holding her mouth agape, a mannerism that is really starting to annoy me. Regardless, what saves the film from being just another bloated blockbuster, and what separates it from duds like Poseidon, is the energy and vibrancy of its acting performances, the comic quality of its script and the sheer unadulterated exuberance of it all. Bill Nighy, the urbane middle aged city gent, plays Davy Jones as a salt-encrusted Scottish tar, even from behind his wriggling mask. The effects work here, and throughout the film, is astonishing, absolutely believable, but thankfully the rubber mask doesn’t hide the surprisingly intimate and expressive power of Nighy’s performance. The other new additions include Stellan Skarsgard as Will’s father Bootstrap Bill and British actress Naomie Harris, from 28 Days Later, as the Jamaican voodoo priestess Tia Dalma. Creating and concluding their storylines might add a lot to the running time, but both prove more than worthy. Pirates might be unwieldy and complicated, but it still finds the space to allow a character like the one-eyed Raggitti (Mackenzie Crook) to sit facing us at the start of the third act and re-cap on what has happened so far. The film knows it’s an epic, full to bursting with dead-ends, conceits and sly references and as infuriating as it is entertaining but it doesn’t really care because it knows you love it anyway.
The human performances aside, what will have fans of the first film coming back for more is the massive and massively complicated action set-pieces, which follow here one after the other in a convoy of spectacular juggernauts. Chasing our heroes are armies of cannibals and crews of barnacle-draped half pirate half-fish mutants, which makes for a couple of hilarious and dramatic narrow escapes, sword-fights and sea-battles. The back-story gives us a burgeoning triangular romantic split, some dark political intrigue and spooky witchcraft, not forgetting an all-destroying monster in the gruesome shape of The Kraken. The all-encompassing breadth and complication of the computer-generated special effects work here is staggering. Like in the year’s other big blockbuster, King Kong, they are all at once subtle and bombastic, but always seamlessly brought to the screen. One of Davy Jones’ crew has melded with a hammer-head shark, making his the first face your eyes fall upon on every time he appears. His comrades are just as gruesome and unforgettable. This is really remarkable character design, totally original and perfectly realised and should prove as eternal as the Star Wars creations in the mind of the audience, although the younger ones might find it all a bit too bizarre.
The practical, physical sets are also marvellously wrought, from the veneer of civilisation in port to the witch’s house in the depths of the swamp. The interiors are beautifully created, on a vast scale, and full of tiny details that should aid repeat viewings. Most impressive are the all-new tall ships, including a re-modelled Black Pearl and Davy Jones’ monstrous Flying Dutchman, covered in a reef of coral and barnacles that give it a monstrous profile. This is a world that is authentically filthy, covered in slime and dust and dirt. Describing Depp’s teeth alone would take a couple of hundred words. For a digital blockbuster, the film is surprisingly physical, with long sequences that play out like old Three Stooges shorts; a barroom brawl, a swordfight on a water-wheel, aided considerably by the meaty photography. In visual terms, Pirates is right at the cutting edge of cinema and is on all counts a staggering display of true artistry.