The very idea of a movie based on a Disneyland ride -- let alone such a movie produced by Jerry "Kaboom" Bruckheimer, whose standards of quality extend only to the explosions that substituted for plot in 15 years of imbecilic summer blockbusters -- had me dreading "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" since it was first announced almost two years ago.
But I'm now here to eat every bad word I said in anticipation of this matinee marvel. Exhilarating from beginning to end, vivid with atmosphere, cleverly cliché-mocking, and blessed with two top-notch, over-the-top performances by Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush (I should have trusted these two intrepid actors), it may well be one of the most enjoyable pirate escapades of all time.
Festooned in a three-point hat over gypsy hair, a billowy shirt, kohl-blackened eyes and gold-capped teeth that he thrusts forward as he speaks, Depp stars as Capt. Jack Sparrow, a dirty, flirty, disarmingly dishonest swashbuckler of subtly dubious sexuality (a covert pirate flick custom since the silent era) who sails into a 17th century Caribbean colonial port atop the mast of a rapidly sinking sailboat.
Arrested for a lifelong litany of crimes -- after some stimulating swordplay as he tries to steal another ship, of course -- Sparrow is surreptitiously sprung from the hoosegow when the town comes under attack by another band of raucous buccaneers who have come to spirit away a cursed gold medallion and the governor's gorgeous daughter Elizabeth ("Bend It Like Beckham's" Keira Knightley).
Sparrow's liberator is Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, "Lord of the Rings"), the talented orphan apprentice of the port's drunkard sword maker. He has been secretly in love with Elizabeth since the day her father's ship rescued him at sea when they both were children, and now he wants the pirate's help with an impromptu rescue mission.
Together they commandeer the fleet's fastest ship in a sneaky switcheroo that proves Sparrow's gift for chicanery (as its crew overruns a ship they hijacked from the dock, Jack and Will sneak onboard the craft they really wanted in the first place). Then they chase after the villains, who just happen to be a crew of scallywags that had mutinied against Capt. Jack years ago, taking his prize ship (the Black Pearl of the film's title) and marooning him on a lonely isle.
Not far behind are the irritated British, led by a stuffy, pirate-hating commodore (Jack Davenport) who has been promised Elizabeth's hand in marriage.
Director Gore Verbinski ("The Ring") brings nail-biting excitement to the pirate raid, in which the Black Pearl's colorfully sinister crew seems to be unstoppable, even when shot or stabbed (most of which happens just out of frame because despite earning a PG-13 and having a grown-up wit, "Pirates" is really a sharp-witted kids' movie).
As the story unfolds, Verbinski gradually unveils the reason for this invulnerability: The crew has stolen the medallion and kidnapped the girl in an attempt to lift an Aztec hex that has left them in limbo between life and death. When any part of them passes into the moonlight, incredible transparency special effects reveal the pirates to be eerie living skeletons in various states of decay.
Geoffrey Rush matches Depp "arrgh!" for "arrgh!" in a deliciously menacing performance as Barbossa, leader of the undead horde who has his hands full with Elizabeth, a girl who turns out to be one serious spitfire of a damsel in distress. Knightley shows a lot of promise in a role that demands a precision mix of hero-luring helpless screams and pre-feminist fortitude. Bloom is appealing as the valiant young Will, but blends into the woodwork a bit in what is a thankless, wide-eyed-but-feisty Boy Scout role. (Upstaging a pungent plethora of pirates isn't easy.)
Depp, however, shines brightest as the flick's devil-may-care anti-action-hero who lives by the seat of his pants and enjoys provoking anyone not of his Puckish persuasion. Refining his drunken Hunter Thompson body language from "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" into a furtively willowy flamboyance, he swashbuckles with the best of them and delivers all his lines with maverick glee. When Sparrow asks how far Will is willing to go to save Elizabeth, the straight-arrow hero responds, "I'll die for her!"
"Oh, good!" exclaims Sparrow with a wicked little grin.
Visually vibrant and spectacularly staged, "Pirates" includes deliberate tweaks of many genre staples (a thrilling side-by-side tall-ship sea battle includes cannons firing silverware when they run out of ammo) and takes inspired advantage of the villainous pirates' walking-dead curse (because they don't need to breathe, in one scene they attack their British pursuers from underwater).
Even managing to incorporate some scenes from the Disneyland ride without being obnoxious about it, the film falls short only in its sweeping yet lackluster swordfights, in a couple minor narrative gaffes, and in dragging its feet on implementing a curse-related twist in the otherwise bracing, extravagant finale.