Michael Mann Interview: Miami Vice

Los Angeles is so hot right now. Not like Paris Hilton’s twittered catchphrase (although I suppose it is that too) but more in the sense of sweating through your fingernails. The TV weatherman has run out of superlatives to describe the 112 degree inferno blazing outside and has resorted to fanning himself theatrically and hooting at a crimson map of the Californian peninsula, dotted with swollen yellow suns. In an anonymous room in the Four Seasons, I’m in a puddle, even with the air-conditioning on full blast and a shelf full of condensation-dripping water bottles standing by. I’m checking the capillary creep under my armpits and wondering if there’s time to dash upstairs and change my shirt when the door opens and Michael Mann scurries into the room, looking like he just stepped out of the fridge where they keep the talent chilled. He’s around the table in a trice to take my soggy hand in a firm grip and carefully place a discreet Dictaphone down beside mine. In any other circumstances this would be unusual, but Mann’s attention to detail is legendary and this recorded insurance is part of that cautious data-mining. Squat and intense, with swept-back hair matching his silver glasses and a confident grin, he sits himself down and motions his bored-looking assistant into a discreet chair in the furthest corner. All set, he takes a final check on everything around him, rolls his shoulders and cocks his head to one side, exposing a thin, transparent hearing aid that follows the contour of his inner ear, waiting for my first question.

I start off our conversation by casually remarking that the director has come full circle with his new film, Miami Vice. It’s a kind-of remake of the seminal 1980s TV series that Mann originally brought to television screens worldwide as executive producer, the pop-culture defining success of which allowed him to write his own ticket in Hollywood, after his Hannibal Lecter story Manhunter and the Nazi horror of The Keep. He takes the observation with a nod, and shrugs his shoulders. “The time was right to make this one”, he says quickly and finally and we move on. The night before, the combined European press watched this new incarnation (which stars Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx as Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs) in a preposterously comfortable screening-room in West Hollywood. The reaction to the frenetic, astonishingly violent cop drama, even from the hard-bitten chaws of the continental press, was decidedly muted. As Mann himself was sitting three seats down from me throughout the screening, I wondered what his reaction to our reaction was. “Ah, the foreign press. I’ve learned with you guys that you just cannot judge by the room. We had the American press in the same theatre, watching the same movie, and they were applauding and laughing and cheering. They were much more expressive. Personally I love this movie, so the short answer is, I don’t know yet exactly what the foreign journalists think, but it is the movie I wanted to make and that’s that”. I tell him I’m only going on the silence as the credits rolled, and the hurried exit of most of the audience. He fixes me in a look and asks me what I thought of it. Trying to be diplomatic and mindful that we’ve only just sat down, I tell him that with the cars and the guns and the violence, it’s a guy’s movie, typically Mannish in its high-octane delivery and brutal exposition. The director stops me with a raised hand and quotes some focus group statistics. “Well, that’s not the case”, he says in his Midwestern drawl, dredging up the facts from some recess of his encyclopaedic mind. “Women under twenty-five love this movie and what they love most about it is the violence. This goes against everything that the studio marketing department would tell you, but they’ve done their tests and that’s what the figures say”.

Ok, but to get back to the original question, why did he make the movie in the first place? “The idea came up first at a party I was at with Jamie Foxx and he gave me the hard sell on playing a new kind of Tubbs. He had everything worked out, even down to specific shots for the trailer. My initial reaction was, you’ve got to be kidding me, why would I want to go back to Miami Vice? Then I looked again at the pilot and some of the early episodes and I got kind of captured afresh by the deep currents and the emotional power of those stories, and I’m talking here about the first two seasons. The way the issues were brought in from the outside world into the lives of Crockett and Tubbs and the way the stories impacted on them. To me, these stories summed up Miami Vice as it originally was. Secondly, Miami has always had a real allure for me, in the same way maybe as Las Vegas had in the 1970s (Mann wrote and directed the Robert Urich starring TV series Vega$ back then), it was really sexy and beautiful and really dangerous and deadly and tragic at the same time. I love those kinds of places, those Twilight Zones, you know. Today, Miami still has all of those elements, even more so, but the physical look of the place, especially at night, has completely changed, even though I don’t have as much of the city on screen as I might have liked”.

It’s not all that has changed. Forget the pastel shades, the flamingos, the flashy jackets with rolled-up sleeves, the pounding Jan Hammer theme tune and the neon graphics. This is a far tougher, more practical Miami Vice, one that takes the business of fighting crime by working undercover very seriously and hasn’t time for goofing around with girls in bikinis. What we forget though, in the time since the show ended in 1989, is how ground-breaking and gritty the original series was, in its depiction of unorthodox police procedure and its commitment to prime-time moderated violence and gunplay. This time, Farrell & Foxx play the charismatic, unorthodox duo, working undercover infiltrating a South American drug trafficking network. The deeper into the business they go, the more the line between reality and fabrication becomes blurred. This is an altogether darker, more grounded take on the work of undercover cops, fighting a better equipped, infinitely richer enemy in Luis Tosar’s cold-eyed drug lord, Arcángel de Jesús Montoya, a typically isolated, ruthless Mann villain. Where he does show his hand, and gives the nod to the film’s origins, is in the shiny machinery; the growling Ferraris, the bouncing speedboats and the swanky private jets that ferry the new model Crockett & Tubbs from palm-sprayed Miami to their far flung investigations around the Caribbean. Most surprising of all though, in Mann’s macho, testosterone-fuelled world, this is his most tender film, featuring synchronous relationships that are given plenty of time to develop, between Farrell and Chinese superstar Gong Li and Foxx and the rising British talent Naomie Harris. These women get both undercover cops into trouble in different ways, adding heart and emotion to the grandly staged, percussively violent set-pieces that mark Mann’s films out from his legion of pretenders. This version of Miami Vice is a far more dangerous proposition than a meekly told re-hash of an old TV show, cravenly baiting retro-nostalgia and crippled by homage. Casting the film posed few problems for the director. “Jamie Foxx was a no-brainer for Tubbs, this is our third movie together. With Colin, it was a question of asking who out there would be Crockett. I saw his work on Minority Report, which was great, and I watched all of his other movies, but there was the prisoner of war movie with Bruce Willis, Hart’s War, that’s the one that got me. Everyone was telling me, ‘oh, Colin’s the real deal’, but he has these couple of moments in that film that really got me and that made up my mind. It’s not about glamour or celebrity; he is a great actor.”

Was there any pressure on him to make more of the film’s small screen origins? “The studio really wanted to make this film, they were pushing me to get it started, but what I wanted to do was going against the conventional industry wisdom, which says that your summer tent-pole movie is a PG-13, disposable popcorn movie. My idea was that you do Miami Vice for real, make it a hard R-rated movie with real violence, real sexuality and using the language of the streets. That took them aback more than a little and there was a series of meetings where I had to make my point. But they knew what I wanted from the outset, and in sitting around the table it’s my job, in part, to convince them that this is the right way to go. We all have to feel that we are making the same movie, and that we want to make that movie. And to their credit, I brought my perspective on Miami Vice to them and they endorsed it completely”. Mann sees the studios willingness to listen to him as part of a sea-change in the way summer films are made and marketed. “There were two R-rated movies last summer, comedies, that both did really well. After that, Hollywood started to believe that maybe everyone is getting tired of the same old bubblegum summer movies. I felt strongly that nobody wanted to see some nostalgic version of Miami Vice, like the other movie versions of TV shows that have been made, with the same elements and cameos from the original cast and all that stuff. Not putting those kinds of movies down, you know, but why would you bother? If you want to see the Miami Vice from 1984, we’ve got a whole rack of really beautiful DVDs you can buy, so you can get your nostalgia trip that way.”

Part of that new realism is updating the technology that goes into both creating and fighting crime. Even something as rudimentary as a mobile phone was the fevered dream of a madman at the time the original series was made, but the new Crockett and Tubbs are equipped with the latest in high-tech crime-fighting gizmos, with the villains likewise equally well equipped. “Well”, says Mann, “it’s not really a balance. The bad guys have bigger budgets and more money, simple as that. That’s why they’re tricked out with the latest in technology”. He gives me a run down on the speculative finances. “Imagine you spend $500 dollars to produce a product that you can then wholesale for $15,000. That’s just a single kilo of cocaine, and tons of this stuff is moved every week. Only two or three percent is intercepted. So the business has unbelievable profitability and a tremendous amount of cash flow, meaning these guys can go out and buy the best. If you’re a drug producer and you want to find out what moves the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) are making on you, you go out and buy the best people on the planet to do your counter-intelligence, your signal intercepts, to be on the DEA phone lines listening on your behalf. Like we show in the movie, if you want a private meeting, and you want to keep it private, you can buy a private army and close down a neighbourhood – jam the phones, block the roads – whatever. The scene as we show it is very real and the technology is a major aspect of that. It’s like the whole world is a globalised ‘Crazy Eddie’s’ and you can buy anything you want within it – drugs, software, weaponry, information. I have to hew to what’s real and that is the reality.”

Mann himself isn’t afraid to spend money on the new cinema technologies that he used in making this movie, although he points out that my assumption - digital cameras make filmmaking more economical - is incorrect. “Not so”, he says, “and that’s a common misunderstanding. Digital on a major movie has little or no effect on the budget. You could use the technology to make cheaper movies, for like $100,000 or whatever, but why would I want to do that? Short answer, I don’t. If I go to Cuba, for example, and I see a location, beautifully crumbling buildings, Art Moderne architecture, astonishing scenery, even down to the old cars they have there and I want to use it in my movie. But I can’t shoot in Cuba, so I go to Uruguay and I build that house or recreate that scene or whatever. Uruguay is far away and it costs a lot of money to go there and do these things. I’m not ever going to be able to do that with $100,000”.

Getting to the point of spending any money at all wasn’t easy. First off, his star Colin Farrell had a much-publicised battle with drink and ‘prescription’ drugs that landed him a stint in rehab, from which he is now fully recovered. So much so that a visiting Finnish journalist’s well-intentioned gift of a bottle of expensive vodka is diplomatically returned by the Dubliner’s minders unopened, something unthinkable a year ago when the party animal was in his pomp. Temptations aside, filming was then delayed by a series of hurricanes (Dennis, Rita and the all-destroying Katrina) with Mann fighting to keep up with his hefty schedule throughout the shoot as Mother Nature battered the south-east coast of the US. These troubles were compounded by other, hotly-denied, rumours of script problems, well-publicised on-set incidents with firearms and gangs and, worst of all for the perfectionist director, a budget that eventually ballooned to a figure somewhere bordering $200 million, a quarter more than was originally envisaged.

He is unwilling to discuss his stars recent difficulties, saying only that he is delighted that Farrell has put his experiences behind him and was a charm to work with. Otherwise, he says, there was a lot of nonsense rumour and there wasn’t much he wasn’t prepared to deal with. “You know this is a big movie and things will happen while you’re making it. If you’re going to go to Miami to shoot and you’re there for June and July and the whole summer and you have to ask ‘what’s the weather going to be like’, you’re going wrong from the start. We knew what was coming in terms of hurricanes, and we had to know exactly what we were doing and prepare for it in advance. From the moment the meteorologists gave us a hurricane warning, we were in a studio approved overage situation (meaning the cost of down-time is factored separate to the shooting budget). Everybody agreed to this beforehand.” Still, it must have been frustrating? “If you’re going to let something like that frustrate you, you’re going to have a lot of trouble in this business. You reach down into yourself and you make sure everything and everyone is safe and secure and you use that time to prepare, maybe for a scene that will shoot a month and a half from now. You get the job done.” With a nod of finality, he shakes my hand again, thanks me for making the trip, picks up his recorder, gives a thumbs-up to his assistant and struts out the door, on to the next thing. What about a sequel, I shout after him. “We’ll have to see what happens”, comes the reply, the gently closing door pushing warm, twice-breathed air across the room as outside Hollywood burns.

Stay Your Hand

The biggest laugh (in a choice parade of entirely unintentional guffaws) to be had in Stay Alive comes when geeky computer whiz-kid Frankie Muniz googles the term ‘perceptive reality’. The same search later made good reading for the film critic - the first hit leads to an essay about how difficult it can be sometimes to believe what is happening right before your eyes.

What follows in this dangerously anaemic slasher picture, built around the sub-Twilight Zone premise of a haunted video game hunting down and executing a gang of thick-headed, thumb-twiddling teenagers, provides more than a few more non sequiturs and inadvertent, eye-popping moments of hilarity but it is cruel, mocking laughter; this is one of the worst films of the year. See, the clownishly costumed ‘teens’, played by an array of pretty, tattooed no-marks and Malcolm in the Middle, all die in the real world in the same way as they die while playing the video game. It takes five of them to bite the dust (in various visually neutered, unimaginative methods of dismemberment) before those remaining take a break from reliving childhood traumas and figure this sequence of events out; making the players as dumb as the play and likely as dumb as the audience.

The source of the digital evil is The Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory (a real historical figure worthy of a googling herself), a sadist who terrorised the virgins of Eastern Europe in the 16th Century. Somehow, she has pitched up in modern-day New Orleans, inside the piece of cursed software, and proceeds to slake her thirst on the kids. According to Muniz’ search engine, the source of Bathory’s contemporary power is “homicidal replication on a sociopathic level”, a remark which makes as much sense as any of the rest of William Brent Bell’s hackneyed horror, more concerned with dropping hip references into the background (Steamboy, Halo) than it is in providing even a modicum of threat or fear up front. The cast are all eminently dislikeable; the story is rubbish and the dialogue swill while the cartoonish gore is kept to an absolute minimum. At no stage do they stop playing the game and find something better to do, like go to the movies.

This hopeless effort sets a new standard for ineptitude in a sub-genre already staggering under the weight of its own indulgence. Stay Alive? The challenge here is to Stay Awake or indeed, Stay Seated.

Moving Hearts

Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) and Gary (Vince Vaughan) first meet at a Chicago Cubs baseball game, where he proceeds to insult her boyfriend, force her to eat hot-dogs and then attaches himself to her elbow. From that obnoxious beginning and soon enough, their entire early romance is shown in a montage of photographs that play over the opening credits, a sequence that would cause uncontrollable drooling among the paparazzi, desperate to snap the same shots of this real-life celebrity couple. For those three minutes that open The Break Up, the two seem happy enough, but like the remainder of what follows, there is nothing deeper on display here beyond the surface images of snuggles and kisses and drunken, costumed revelry.

Whereas Brooke is a needy, unhappy woman, unfulfilled in her career and her life, Gary is a thinly drawn human male, withdrawn and immature, obsessed with the Chicago Cubs baseball team and playing violent video games. His motivations in life revolve around installing a pool table in the living room, so he can entertain his friends, and drinking beer in his best friend’s (played by Jon Favreau) corner pub. Later, we come to know that she likes the ballet, he likes the ballgame. She likes martinis and fancy shoes, he likes beer and t-shirts. And so on. She wants him to grow-up while he wants her to shut up. Soon though, they tire of one another. An argument over housekeeping spirals uncontrollably into an ultimatum and a final split. Having decided to break up, they must sell their new apartment, split the money and go their separate ways, but neither of them wants to move out, so Oscar and Felix-like, they must try to share the place before it’s sold by their estate agent friend Riggleman (Jason Bateman)

There’s a long sequence in the centre of the film where Gary is relegated to sleeping on the pull-out couch surrounded by a litter of fast-food cartons and beer bottles while she goes and gets her intimate parts waxed in preparation for a parade of handsome suitors, marched through the apartment in order to make him jealous. Although we can appreciate her desire to get on with her life and deal with the inconveniences that circumstances have thrown in her way, the film’s inability to break from this rut and establish some dramatic tension between the two top-line stars wastes the whole of the second act in tired, situation-comedy standard routines. Would any woman choose public embarrassment over private discretion, especially when the easiest thing to do happens also to be the right thing to do? Would any man just sit there and take it, jabbing the buttons on the x-box his only display of annoyance and hurt? Would he arrange a creepy stripper party, engineering the paid-for nakedness to co-incide with her arrival home? By the time these two come to sit down and talk about their problems, it’s far too late. That might be the moral here, but man, this is depressing stuff for a light romantic comedy.

The film shares a lot in terms of story and execution with last year’s stupid Drew Barrymore vehicle Fever Pitch, and the Colin Firth-starring British football story that inspired it, in showing men as stubborn cranks crippled by childish obsessions and adrift in a sea of ignorance, about themselves and the women they share their lives with. What all three films lack is any real insight into human behaviour, both male and female, and the compulsions and emotions that tie couples together. Here, as before, both sides of the relationship exist separate to one another, circling around the central truth that they are incompatible and delaying until the final moments the revelation to themselves that they are wasting their time. For the film to work, for us to be interested in the characters and their destiny, we have to feel at some stage that they cared for one another as they ask us to care for them. We never do. Circling the top-line talent is an underused ensemble of character actors, including cameos from Vaughan’s father and brother, who only get a couple of scenes to establish themselves and then quickly fade into the background. John Michael Higgins, as Brooke’s Broadway-loving brother, turns a family dinner into an impromptu sing-along that adds a little humour and awkwardness but it is nothing like enough. Best of the support is Vincent D'Onofrio, as Gary's fussy older brother, driven to succeed in business and crippled by his inability to help his floundering sibling.

The best that the film has to offer is in the scenes where Brooke and Gary cut loose and argue properly, tough and realistic episodes that rely on dialogue and gesture to show the profound irritation and heartache that comes from realising their mistakes. Here, both actors (Aniston in particular) show real vulnerability and emotional instability that contrasts uncomfortably with the shabby slapstick and pop-psychology of the remainder. Although The Break-Up does aspire to turning romantic-comedy convention on its head, leading to a sad, inevitable conclusion that alone has the ring of authenticity about it, there simply isn’t enough here to justify the talents of the filmmakers or the patience of the audience. As a date-movie, it’s perhaps the one to choose if you and your significant other need to have a long, difficult talk, and require a cinematic spark to set it off.

Back With A Bang

“Why the World Doesn't Need Superman” is the headline of an article in the Daily Planet that wins Lois Lane the Pulitzer Prize in Superman Returns, the latest and greatest big-screen resuscitation of the original movie superhero. She’s wrong, as she comes to realise herself by the end of this exemplary summer adventure. Despite there being a twenty-year gap in big screen outings for the character (dead in the water by Quest For Peace in 1987), and the trouble and expense bringing this $250 million, long-delayed incarnation to the screen, director Bryan Singer more than justifies the effort. After a five-year journey into deep space to find any traces of his home planet Krypton, Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth filled with doubts and fear. A lot has happened in the time he was away and humanity is on the brink of collapse without him to save the day. Chief originator of the chaos is Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), released from prison on a technicality and quickly returning to his nefarious plans for world domination. He has found Superman’s abandoned Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic and plans to use its mystical crystals to build a new island in the Atlantic that will flood the eastern seaboard of the United States. Another discovery, a meteorite made of kryptonite, gives Luthor a vital secret weapon, once Superman arrives to foil the scheme. In his other life, back at work as a reporter on The Daily Planet, Clark Kent finds that former flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), has moved on with a new partner (James Marsden) and a son (Tristan Lake Leabu), suspiciously just about 5 years old. Lane, a tough and diligent journalist, offers Superman his best chance at feeling human emotion, their romance rekindled spectacularly on a night-flight through Metropolis that raises old stirrings that are tempered by new realities.

Bryan Singer makes a radically different summer blockbuster to his contemporaries, building on the smart, literate and emotionally credible ground established in his two X-Men films. This film has been carefully and lovingly directed, where others have been assembled from pre-modelled kits. Every subtle flourish from Singer adds heart or humour or gives a jaw-dropping twist to a stunt work standard; the way a vast expanse of outer space dissolves into a field of glowing stars on a child’s bedroom ceiling, the way Superman generates a corona of vapour as he re-enters the earth’s atmosphere or the little kid’s asthmatic off-screen wheeze as he realises Kent and Superman are the same person. Thankfully, Singer doesn’t spin his film into concentric rings of self-reference, irony or camp. He knows there is a legacy here, and pays due homage, but this is his own sincere work, far grander in scale and deeper in emotion than anything that has gone before in this much maligned and abused genre.

For a newcomer, especially one donning such a legendary mantle, Brandon Routh gives an exemplary performance, bringing nuance and vulnerability to what could easily be a flying, costumed stiff. Much of this comes from his deliberate, graceful movement which add great force and control to his actions. It helps that Routh plays these scenes mostly mute with the gaze of a man on the outside, looking in on the mess humanity has created and he is duty bound to repair. Routh’s effortlessness in the role betrays the weight of the character and his meaning to fans across generations. Stealing the show, and all the best lines, Spacey plays the cocksure criminal genius Lex Luthor with demonic élan. Beside him Parker Posey plays a perfectly sassy moll, particularly when arranging a false rescue to distract Superman that pays direct homage to his famous debut issue of Action Comics.

For every complicated stunt or grand battle there is a contrasting moment of quiet visual poetry that opens another door on Superman’s story; a dropped scrabble board (‘isolation’ is the only word I caught), a snatch of Ligeti on the soundtrack when Superman ascends into space, his adopted mother’s (Eva Marie Saint) face in the crowd outside the hospital, a mask of worry and unbreakable separation. Singer and Routh succeed in giving us a new, better understanding of Superman by allowing him to feel a full range of emotion. This is an omnipotent being that can stop bullets, fly through space, see through matter, but he cannot be human and it’s killing him. Isolation is the theme here, the existential pain of his uniqueness. Rather than a simple all-conquering cipher carrying the red white and blue ideals of America, this is a Superman for all mankind. Now, Superman represents “truth, justice and…all that stuff”, a pointed awareness that nowadays “the American way” isn’t always the right way, reinforced every time he orbits the Earth and looks down on all of creation.

Singer’s deft efforts to add depth and significance go as far as making Superman Returns a blatant Christ allegory. Superman, according to his father Jor-El (Marlon Brando in a port mortem cameo) is “the light” that will “show humanity the way”. When he ascends to the heavens and uses his super powers to hear what everyone is praying for, we get a sense of his otherness and his supernatural godliness. Superman is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, up to and including a crucifixion-inspired last breath, his side pierced by a Kryptonite lance. He is raised again, seemingly from the dead, to destroy the evil kingdom Luthor has established in the ocean. Regardless of this heavy tone, with Superman Returns, Singer does almost everything right in what is a beautifully rendered film. His action sequences are new and exciting, coherent and motivated and drive momentum into the long, complicated story. The world really does need Superman, if only for the tremendous entertainment value.

(The comic-book image at the top of the post is from The Superman Home Page. Not everybody in the world of movie blogs agrees with my assessment of Singer's labour of love, by the way. Cullen Gallagher at Cinema-Journal fucking hated it.)

Excess Marks The Spot

There’s a great moment in one of the dozens of battles in the new Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, Dead Man’s Chest where Will, trapped in the crow’s-nest, sticks his sword through the main sail and uses the friction the cut creates to abseil down to the deck. The first man to do the stunt was Douglas Fairbanks in the original action adventure, The Thief of Baghdad, more than 80 years ago. The daredevil Fairbanks did the job himself, he buckled his own swashes. Bloom, like any modern actor, is safely harnessed, ditto his stunt-double, in a complicated rigging of wires and sandbags, scrubbed away later by a bored effects technician. Somewhere in that binary stream, in the gap between the stuff they strap on and the stuff they take off, you’ll find, like it or not, the heart of the modern summer blockbuster. Like it plenty, in this case.

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.

The problem is there is too much of everything, because there is too much movie. Dead Man’s Chest is too long by about a half an hour. Everything hits a dead stop when the very complicated story gets yet another coat of varnish and the film runs aground for a while. In these circumstances, when your backside starts telling you you’ve been sitting down too long and you find yourself comparing the film to silent, black and white two-reelers from the last century, waiting out the doldrums can prove exhausting and maddening.