In what might have been a dereliction of duty, I chose not to refresh my memory on the plots of the first two films before setting off to see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. I thought that if the second sequel had a chance in hell of recapturing the spirit that made The Curse of the Black Pearl such an unexpected joy, it would have to start by ditching the plot — in particular the obstinately labyrinthine monstrosity unveiled to everyone’s chagrin in Dead Man’s Chest — and returning the focus to the hilariously deranged Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, the gee-whiz charm of the Will-Elizabeth romance, the uncanny fleetness that made the inconsequentiality of the action scenes irrelevant. Surely, I thought, Verbinski/Elliot/Rossio would take the hint: sure, Dead Man’s Chest cleaned up at the box office, but did anyone really love it?
I was both right and wrong: right that the filmmakers would have to give the plotting a rest to get the movie off the ground, and wrong in thinking that they would oblige so readily. The first hundred minutes of the nearly three hour film are as tortuous as this franchise has been; “it’s all so complicated,” I whispered to my companion after yet another speech about Davy Jones’ heart, or the council of the Pirate Lords, or one of the countless alliances that are forged and broken as the story slogs on. It’s nearly impossible to engage with this stuff, since it’s basically arbitrary, and since anyone of any significance who dies is swiftly returned to us by some sorcery or another.
On and on this went, occasionally interrupted with halting bursts of action or a quick and unsatisfying bit of Depp’s mincing. Boredom began to simmer into a fury that a franchise that began its life representing the best of what modern blockbusters had to offer had descended into such plodding, bloated wankery. And the 168-minute running time started to loom very, very large.
Fortunately I soon found myself rescued, since Team Pirates evidently had the wisdom to end the trilogy the way it began. Once the creaky plot finally gets the characters where they need to be, the stage is set for the film’s splendid last hour, which at last manages to approach Black Pearl‘s magic. The focus returns — somewhat improbably, but what the hell — to Will and Elizabeth, and the movie’s eleventh hour rally begins with an endearingly reckless scene in which the two of them wed as two pirate ships battle while swirling in a vicious maelstrom. It’s the sort of skillful, funny, caution-and-sense-to-the-wind set piece I spent a movie and a half waiting for, and it seems to restore the film’s and the series’ mojo in the nick of time.
The transformation is immediate and remarkable. Everything that follows works: Jack Sparrow is back to his old womanizing, basically incoherent self, closing the film on a superb and hilarious high note; the villain is dispatched in a moment of unexpected lyricism and even beauty; the swashbuckling action regains its vigor and the film is able to sell an extended fight scene atop a ship’s sail. To the extent that there were elements of the plot left to be resolved, even those manage to tie up satisfactorily — the central romance and Davy Jones storylines, in particular, come together in a way that’s more downbeat and affecting than I expected.
Even with the last-act rebound, it’s hard not to leave At World’s End with a sour, vaguely violated impression — the film is angling to be the apex (or nadir) of this summer’s thus far unsatisfying obsession with enormous opening weekends and sequel spectacle. Despite having earned his acting stripes in Kingdom of Heaven, Orlando Bloom is kept around solely to attract a certain demographic; Johnny Depp, the last few minutes of the film notwithstanding, seems to be serving out his contract obligations; and though the movie always looks great, no one seems to have cared much about what happens in its first two-thirds. The Curse of the Black Pearl became such a favorite, I think, because it came out of nowhere with a spark and a soul. The third film begins to recapture some of that in its final minutes, but by then the damage is done.
Now I come back to my failure to review the plots of At World’s End‘s predecessors before watching. Might my reaction to the beginning of the film been different had I recalled all the details through which the plot painstakingly rifles? It’s conceivable, but I rather doubt it; I think they’re boring no matter one’s preparation. And I think the movie’s last hour implicitly proves me right.