At the risk of alienating all my fellow Film Threat scribes here with the high rating for this uber-mainstream production, I have to admit something before God and everyone: not only did I love “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” I wanted to love it. I went into the theater with giddy anticipation and grinned all the way through it.
Until the last five minutes, that is. But, anyway…
Light years ahead of “Dead Man’s Chest,” the awkwardly-paced second film of the series, “At World’s End” picks up some time after the first sequel ended: with Elizabeth Swann, the newly-resurrected Captain Barbossa and the mish-mosh crew of the Black Pearl setting out to rescue the jim-dandy scoundrel Captain Jack Sparrow from the land of the dead (in this case the surreal and surprisingly weird seaman’s hell known as “Davy Jones’ Locker”). Their quest to do this takes them to Singapore, the realm of Oriental Pirate Captain Sao Feng (the criminally underused Chow Yun-Fat in little more than an extended walk-on), who possesses an ancient restaurant placemat dessert wheel that gives the location of countless mythical realms, all indicated in fanciful riddles in English.
Meanwhile, their every move is being thwarted by the business-first head of the East India Company, Lord Cutler Beckett, who wants to bring an end to the Age of Piracy, and holds the Lovecraftian crew of the Flying Dutchman, and their captain, Davy Jones, in his charge to achieve this end.
There follows a lot of dueling, explosions, multiple Capt. Sparrows (for those who think one Johnny Depp is never enough), some specious mythology, ancient goddesses bound in human form, an over-abundance of Geoffrey Rush, great jokes, bad jokes, funny animals, comic relief sidekicks who happen also to be murderous villains, nautical battles that would make Errol Flynn weep, romantic complications, family honor, appropriate deaths for some and inauspicious deaths for others. At the same time rollicking and ludicrous, it is precisely the kind of big budget blockbuster certain to bring in $300 million in its opening weekend courtesy of family ticket holders bringing in their tiny tots over the Memorial Day holiday.
Lucky for we of the cynical film-reviewing nature, “At World’s End” is actually worth the hoopla and moolah. About midway through the press screening I attended, I started to feel hope for Hollywood, almost as if they had listened to some of us and decided to give us an intelligent big, noisy movie. There’s a lot of stuff going on in this movie and a lot of characters (with their own motivations) to keep track of, and all the while, the screenwriters (Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio) keep throwing new ones at us. New codes to adhere to, new cameos to giggle at (Keith Richards puts in an appearance as an animatronic escapee from the ride who never blinks and hardly moves but, yep, he’s Sparrow’s father!), more buckles swashed, more ships sailing to the four corners of the Earth in record time. Which, oddly, requires the serious viewer to both engage himself intellectually to follow the story and turn his brain off when the laws of physics, time, space, dimension and logic are eagerly defied.
All of the main characters and most of the supporting cast are given good moments. Depp’s Sparrow actually takes a back seat at several occasions to Rush’s wonderfully over-the-top Barbossa (make no mistake, this is Depp’s franchise all the way, but he’s notoriously generous at sharing the stage, so to speak). Bloom’s Will Turner doesn’t have much to do this time around—it’s more Elizabeth’s scene this time—but he isn’t really… what’s the word? Missed. In fact, once Jack Sparrow shows up around the 30 minute mark, Turner is pretty much superfluous. Except the audience loves a troubled romance. So Peter and Mary Jane resent that there are secrets kept from each other and… sorry, my sarcasm runneth over.
But I, like the rest of the audience, enjoyed the hell out of the movie and didn’t once look at my watch (unlike my viewings of “Dead Man’s Chest”). So the two-hours plus just flew by—and slammed into a closed window at the last five minutes. They came so close to perfection. So close to an ending that was both fitting and romantically tragic and for just a minute, I was convinced that Verbinski and company would actually end the movie in defiance of audience expectations. Because no matter how many times Hollywood kicks me in the groin, I continue to maintain boyish optimism.
But… no. A sequel is set up. The rug isn’t pulled out from under us nearly as hard as it was during “Dead Man’s Chest”’s ridiculously-rushed ending, but it still sucker-punches those of us who were thinking “this is an amazing ending! I can’t believe they’re leaving things where they… oh, nevermind.” Not a cheat, but still a cheap shot. But not a surprising one. Again: $300 million by Tuesday, guaranteed. What exec would give up the chance at turning that kind of fortune a fourth time? Cynicism be damned. Prepare to meet Capt. Jack Sparrow in 2009 with “POTC 4: Just Shut Up and Give Us Your Money”.
Still, it was a whole lot of fun! And I can think of worse franchises to wear on. Surely this is money better spent than on “Blades of Glory 2”…