Depp's pirate is pure gold


Last updated at 13:51 07 July 2006

Here's my early tip for the most successful blockbuster of 2006: an exuberantly inventive, high-spirited swashbuckler that blows the cobwebs off the tired old cliches of the genre and fashions them into top-class, 21st-century, family entertainment. This is one of the most entertaining pirate movies ever.

Previous buccaneers who have dominated the silver screen - most notably Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926), Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935) and Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate (1952) - have all been he-men.

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As the latest of these screen icons, Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp has an ironic, post-modern take on machismo. He may wear eye-shadow and resemble Bo Derek in his liking for beads, but - as with that other iconic figure of our age, David Beckham - his sexuality is never seriously in question.

One of the delightful questions left hanging in the air is whether or not our feisty, but strait-laced, heroine (intelligently played by Keira Knightley) isn't secretly more attracted to Mr Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow than to Orlando Bloom's more conventional leading man.

So what is Depp's appeal, for her and the audience? It's exactly the same thing that made his auspicious big-screen predecessors popular. He captures the subversive delight of being your own man. He's outside the law, free of scruples, the exact opposite of a downtrodden wage-slave.

In an era when pirate movies had seemed to be box-office poison, Depp has reinvented the romance, the allure, the subversive joy of being a maverick on the high seas.

The plot starts out with a diminutive but ruthless pirate hunter from the East India Company (Tom Hollander at his most tight-lipped) interrupting preparations for the wedding of Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley). He claps both of them in prison for aiding and abetting the escape from justice of Jack Sparrow.

Will is allowed out on condition that he locates Sparrow, who turns out to owe a blood debt to the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), ruler of the ocean depths, captain of the ghostly Flying Dutchman, and owner of a terrible pet called the Kraken, which can wreck a ship single-handed, or rather multi-tentacled.

If Jack can't wriggle his way out of this arrangement, he'll be cursed to an afterlife of eternal servitude and damnation, not to mention looking like a giant, gold-toothed crustacean.

From then on, the plot gets sillier and sillier; but really it is just an excuse for gags and thrills. In terms of action, the sequel outdoes the original, with a couple of ridiculous swordfights and astonishingly baroque chases drawing applause from the preview audience.

The sequences where Bloom and Jack Davenport have a swordfight in a rotating, runaway waterwheel and Depp tries to outrun a tribe of cannibals while speared on a giant fruit kebab (trust me, I'm not making this up) are both classics.

The special effects are extraordinary, too. There's one of the best giant squid attacks in movie history. The principal villain, who's half-man, half-sushi (played with magnificent enthusiasm, plus a hint of pathos, by Bill Nighy), and his sinister shipmates are hugely imaginative crosses between humans and slimy sea creatures.

The movie is at all times a treat for the eyes, with tremendous wit and detail. Production designer Rick Heinrichs excels even his work on Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, which won an Oscar.

The excellent British costume designer Penny Rose also deserves recognition at next year's Academy Awards.

The script, by the original writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (who also wrote Aladdin, Shrek and The Mask Of Zorro), has plenty of humour - although many lines are delivered at such a volume and amid such crashing sound effects that it's hard to catch every one.

Director Gore Verbinski is obviously aware of the problem. I especially liked the point where he interrupted one of the dafter swordfights to let Mackenzie Crook update the audience on the situation before everyone set off again at full speed.

Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley make a pleasing romantic couple. Although the film doesn't require them to show too much acting ability, they look for all the world like old-fashioned movie stars.

But the magic ingredient, of course, is Depp in his justifiably Oscar-nominated role as Captain Jack Sparrow. As one of his pirate crew remarks early on: "The captain seems to be acting" Not half!

Depp has become the most eccentric actor of his generation, as befits a man who once insisted on being credited as 'Oprah Noodle-mantra'. He's now one of the best reasons for going to the cinema.

Unusually for a sequel, virtually everyone from the first movie, whether alive, dead or undead, has - however improbably - been signed up to reappear. I'm sure they're being well paid; but the movie looks as though it must have been as much fun to make as it is to watch.

Yes, it's too long. And cheekily, it doesn't even bring the convoluted plot to a conclusion, but leaves with a cliffhanger as to what will happen in the third episode, which has already been shot.

But the moments when the pace flags are clearly there to set up plot-points which will be resolved in Pirates III, to which I - and I suspect many millions of others - look forward with impatience.

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