It’s as though the people involved with PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END gave a great deal of thought to where exactly they hadn’t taken their heroes, villains, and Jack Sparrow, who is both and neither. Singapore, for one, and so the sequence in the seamier parts of that location. The polar climes, and so the sequence where they all sail forth into the icy barrens on their way to the eponymous end. Wait, we haven’t cast Chow Yun-Fat yet. And so he suits up as one of the nine mythical pirate brethren. Okay, that last part is reaching a bit, but no further than the script this flick struggles with. It is all over the place. This is because after all that thought about where to go next, very little was given to shaping a script to do it justice.
It starts in Bermuda, where, for reasons not adequately explained, the film hopes to make a political statement. That halcyon isle is under the kind of martial law that would do an internment camp proud is being enforced on the gallows. No assembly, no habeas corpus, no access to lawyers, no trial by jury, and, of course, no fraternizing with pirates. Line upon line of men, women, and children drop through the trap door into eternity, until one begins to sing a melancholy, naturally, song with the defiant sentiment that none of them were ever really going to die. They are of course, but with a tight shot of a piece of eight, and the smug satisfaction of Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander, master of the supercilious), there just has to be more to the story than that. Hence to Singapore, where Elizabeth Swann is singing the same song as she demurely paddles her canoe through the canals there. She’s there with the recently revivified Captain Barbossa to enlist Sao Feng (Chow), the potentate pirate of the East who has a penchant for steam and an nasty attitude about foreigners impinging on his domain. Never mind, it’s just the first stop in a seemingly endless series for Elizabeth et als, including her true love, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), to whom she is not speaking due to a misunderstanding about what exactly happened to Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). He was last seen being swallowed more or less whole by a sea-monster of the kraken variety. They and the rest of the pirate crew set off to rescue Sparrow from his current abode in Davy Jones’ locker. Not that they miss him. Well, maybe the monkey. For everyone else, he’s just the key to stopping Jones (Bill Nighy, face still buried beneath CGI hyperactive tentacles and pulsating fiddlybits), who for reasons best left to the last film to explain, is now working for the East India Company. That is to say, Beckett, which is to say that the days of a pirate’s life on the high seas are doomed unless they stop them and the East India Company. Death isn’t the biggest obstacle, as Barbossa’s resurrection courtesy of Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris, still all but unintelligible) proves. It’s the part about having been done in by that kraken that’s gumming up the works, hence (again) a trip to the other world, as in afterlife, courtesy of a map that speaks in riddles, when it gives any information at all. And once, there, it involves somehow getting back to the land of the living.
By the time we get to the pirate brethren’s conclave, the one that will stop Beckett and Jones, we are only halfway through the film. The time is ripe for the thrilling climax of a ripping yarn, but there is another hour or so to slog through, replete with excess in every sense of the word. Sure, Keith Richards as the guy in charge of the Pirate Code is fun, but not an hour’s worth. Things, alas, never to manage to clip along with clever dialogue at the sort of breathless pace that makes logic dispensable. Further alas, for all the buckling of swashes, not to mention director Jerry Bruckheimer’s trademark blowing things up real good, it’s remarkably lifeless. Even Depp, still the most interesting thing at any given moment he is on screen, seems a little blasé about it all at this point. Perhaps anticipating this, the writers at one point fill the screen with Depp, as he suffers through a sort of purgatory of his own making there in the locker, which is somewhere in the middle of a desert. Lack of water notwithstanding, he’s captaining the Black Pearl of the last two films with a crew of himselves who are even more incoherent that he is,. It’s one of the best sequences in the flick, even if it does give us way too much information about the pores on Mr. Depp’s nose. He plugs along, though, as do Rush, Hollander, and Nighy, who proves that a good actor can create an astonishingly moving character with nothing more to work with than his eyes and his voice. Chow is bemused rather than dangerous, Bloom is pretty rather than stalwart, and Knightly isn’t quite as feisty as she was the last time out. Still, everyone’s favorite philosopher/sailors, Pintel and Ragetti, don’t disappoint with their homespun musings on the nature of suffering and a pirate’s place in the great cosmic scheme of things, even if their schtick is getting stale.
For every moment that charms, Sparrow’s excellent turns of phrase such as “feculent madness”, or an army of desert crabs with a herd mentality and killer camouflage, there is yet another set of explosions, another cheesy shot of the monkey, or a cliché delivered with sincerity rather than the measured irony called for, and all in all, too little Depp. The running time could have been cut by a good half hour, make that a heavenly half-hour, if the writers had stuck to the task at hand. That would be tying up as many loose ends as possible in a story as far-reaching as it is far fetched, rather than trying to top the last visual effect.
As my colleague Richard Von Busack opined after the first, aborted screening of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END, “I fear we will never see land again.” He, of course, was referring to the way we had been beached, as it were, when the digital file sent for the press screening, well, we never did find out quite what happened. The specifics don’t really matter anyway. It was enough that 1 ½ hours into the pirate doings, the movie flickered a few times and then went dark, not to be revived again that day. His sentiment, though, is perfectly apt for audiences sitting through this last installment to its conclusion. It drifts along in its own sort of doldrums, two minutes of not terribly exciting story followed by ten minutes of special effects, some of which are dandy, most of which demonstrate the textbook definition of overkill.