We’re three movies in to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and I still have no idea who Will Turner is. He’s never developed a personality. Whether that’s because no one has bothered to write him one or because Orlando Bloom has all the acting range of a two-by-four is hard to say. It’s probably a combination of both. We may not know who Will Turner is, but nobody seems to care. There are so many big personalities in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End it hardly matters that the skinny little pale fellow over in the corner never turned in to an actual character. Big personalities rule these seven seas, and the biggest of those personalities is of course Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. But At World’s End proves that while his place in piracy may be the biggest, it’s not necessarily the most important. Pirates 3 is better than Pirates 2 for one, very good reason: Forget Captain Jack, Captain Barbossa is back!
At World’s End picks up the story where we left it, with Jack Sparrow dead and Captain Barbossa undead. Barbossa, Will Turner, and Elizabeth Swan assemble a ragtag group of rescuers who set out to bring Jack back from the dead by sailing to the end of the world and back. Each is there for his own reasons, and none of them are particularly altruistic ones. It’s no spoiler to tell you that early on they find him. Unfortunately, some of the audience may bail out right there. Jack is in the piratical version of hell, which screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio have written as something that might have been more comfortable in Depp’s drug tripping flick Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After a lot of truly bizarre, supernatural insanity, Jack and the gang are back in the land of the living and ready to even the score against Davy Jones and the East India Trading Company.
One of my biggest problems with Pirates 2 was the way Jack was reduced to a guy does nothing but a lot of running and flailing. If the previous movie was primarily about Captain Jack Sparrow running then this third one is all about Jack having meetings. It’s the first thing Sparrow does when he’s resurrected, and once he gets going he just can’t seem to stop. He holds meetings with himself, meetings with his enemies, meetings with his women, meetings with his crew, and if there’s a fourth film, I fully expect him to install an Office Space style conference room in the bowels of the Black Pearl. Worse, none of it means anything. The audience knows it and the characters inside the film know it. The first three fourths of the film is firmly focused on major characters getting together in rooms to lie to one another. They reach accords which both sides realize neither side is going to keep, so they turn around and make conflicting accords with other characters who also realize that no one is going to do anything they say. After awhile the film turns into one big, knotted mess of crosses, double crosses, triple crosses, quadruple crosses and double quadruple crosses. You’ve got to wonder why anyone even bothers talking, when both sides know that whatever the other has to say is almost certainly a complete fabrication. What’s the point? Aren’t these supposed to be pirates? Shut up and stab somebody. Too much of the film is wasted on mindless negotiating that goes nowhere and serves only to turn the plot into one confused, nearly incomprehensible mess. At World’s End could easily have turned into one long, ocean-faring, conference nightmare except for one thing: His name is Geoffrey Rush.
Pirates 3 proves just how important Captain Barbossa is to this franchise. We’ve all spent so much time fawning over Depp, that Geoffrey Rush’s consistently brilliant performance as the growling Barbossa has been almost completely overlooked. But Captain Barbossa is, and always has been the only real pirate in these movies. Sparrow is a clown, a wannabe-rock-star turned pirate. Barbossa is a mean, bitter, robbing and killing, leader of men sonofabitch. I don’t mean to demean what Depp does, the character of Jack Sparrow is brilliant, but he works better when Barbossa is there to lend the movie gravitas while Depp prances around the deck like a puppet with his strings cut. Without Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest felt lost, light-headed, and silly. With Rush back in for an entire movie, Pirates 3 is able to survive the script problems that weighed the previous movie down with great character chemistry.
Chemistry problems solved, the returning cast is able to hold the movie’s poorly written non-action scenes together through sheer force of will, making it easier to simply sit back and enjoy the cannon fire when it happens. There may not be as much of it in At World’s End as in the second movie, but what’s there is more satisfying. Swordfights and rope swings and broadsides are back front and center. Gone is the underwater beastie that terrorized the second film like the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man stomping New York, and in its place is swashbuckling and gunfire. The wind howls and the ships rock, and while Pirates 3 intentionally passes up an opportunities for even bigger, ship on ship action, it’s fun as a purely action experience.
I’ve nearly made it through my entire At World’s End review without mentioning Keith Richards. If you’re wondering why, it’s because he doesn’t really matter. He’s only a cameo, but people seem to care about what he’s doing in the movie, so here’s your answer: He plays a crusty old uber-pirate and he’s damned good at it. No doubt he’d have been less good in larger doses, but in his small cameo part as the ultimate scallywag I’m pleasantly surprised to say that Keith Richards is flat out awesome. For once, stunt casting pays off.
There’s already talk of making a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and while I think this one is a fairly adequate entry into the series, it’s also pretty clear that the concept is running out of gas. The return of Barbossa injects some much needed life back into Pirates, but new characters like Chow Yun-Fat’s Shanghai pirate lord Sao Feng never pan out. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End finishes with a satisfactory ending for each of the film’s primary characters, and no matter how much money the movie makes, this seems like the perfect time to let this world sail off into the sunset. The franchise’s legions of fans will undoubtedly have a great time watching Captain Jack’s Bogus Journey, but let this be where it stops.