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Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End   C-

Walt Disney Pictures / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writers: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Cast: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Bill Nighy, Jonathan Pryce, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook, Kevin R. McNally, David Bailie, Stellan Skarsgård.

Review by Rob Vaux

I didn't see the ending coming. I'll give it that. Otherwise, the eagerly awaited climax to the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy lies as bloated and dead as the sea serpent washed up on one of its beaches. Every positive trace of its predecessors has been scoured away: the frivolity and lightness that rescued an entire genre from obscurity have vanished. It strains futilely beneath piles of expensive sets, elaborate costumes, concept art, special effects, and all the things that Jack Sparrow once cut us loose of with a single lilting grin. This entry takes us to the world's end, all right... and right off the edge.

The trouble begins, as it often does, with the script -- packing far too much into far too little space until there's hardly room to move amid all the plot exposition. On the surface, certainly, we have plenty of questions to resolve, but the basics are very simple. Captain Jack (Johnny Depp) has been consigned to Davy Jones' locker after being devoured by the mystical Kraken. His fellow swashbucklers, including Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley), and an inexplicably resurrected Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), have vowed to return him to life, while Davy Jones himself (Bill Nighy) is helping the Dutch East India Company purge the Seven Seas of every last buccaneer daring to stand against them. It's a pretty straightforward equation: 1) rescue the series tent pole, 2) stop the evil encroaching hegemony, 3) pass out the rum. But to it, At World's End piles on subplot after subplot, some legitimate but all rendered desiccated and perfunctory by the horrible tedium of blathering explanations. Too many scenes feature nothing but talk -- boring talk -- about what's been done, what should be done, and what will be done. Double crosses and triple crosses abound, intended to convey the moral treachery that defined the characters in earlier films, but which here serve only to muddle their goals and motivations to the point where we lose the ability to care. And every minute they are thus engaged -- yakking on interminably about whose side they're on, what their plans are, etc. -- they're not doing anything else. No burying gold, no swinging on chandeliers, no taking a special moment each day to shoot someone in the face. You know, no pirate shit. The shit we're presumably paying good money to see.

Oh, it's not entirely without rewards. Depp is still in fabulous form, whether leaping from yardarms or cheerfully selling his friends down the river. Director Gore Verbinski labors to bring the same clockwork whimsy he used in the first two films -- with a few more cute nods to the theme-park ride and some precious moments of inspiration that arrive like rain in the desert -- while the omnipresent eye candy certainly gives us its money's worth. But none of it goes anywhere. At World's End offers nothing new conceptually or thematically; just a lot of pretty sets and a nice new Mandarin costume for Swann. The second film earned its visual spurs with the monstrous visages of Jones and his crew, providing a fresh wrinkle for this universe while preserving its capering soul. That well has clearly run dry. Instead, the third film presents an alliance of pirates -- owners of nine mystical pieces of eight who must join together to resist the relentless onslaught of the E.I.C. -- that collapses beneath the sheer weight of unrealized potential. Like the leads, the new figures mostly just sit around and bicker, offering a little convenient leverage for some of the lingering plot threads, but otherwise serving as walking scenery. Chow Yun-Fat's pirate king Sao Feng goes to tragic, inexplicable waste, while Bloom and Knightley rapidly morph from adequate romantic leads into lifeless ciphers. Rush does his best to inject some fun into the proceedings, but Barbossa lacks a proper sense of purpose, and as deliciously hammy as the actor can be, his squinty-eyed "arrrgghhhs" only carry us so far.

Indeed, the melancholy atmosphere of At World's End would thwart even the most dedicated performer. It holds no joy within its frame, no twinkle in its eye or bounce in its gait. Its seascapes are gray and sullen, its characters full of poker-faced woe. We open with the sight of a small boy walking to the hangman's noose -- a despairing pacesetter that the film transcends only fitfully at best. Earlier Pirates movies used grim elements, to be sure, but usually as witticisms and always with a fine sense of spirit. Here, those elements imprison the film in turgid gloom. Even the special effects seem leeched of creativity, with dubious highlights in Depp's hallucinated clones of himself (the producers apparently decided that the only person who can keep up with Jack is Jack) and an incredibly ill-conceived homage to Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Things improve marginally towards the last half-hour, as we finally start shooting monkeys out of cannons, declaring our loyalties amid swirling melees, and all of the stuff we were supposed to be doing 120 minutes earlier. But by then, the maelstrom has already swallowed us, and even some modestly inspired final twists can't save the film from itself. It may be that I simply let my hopes get too high before going in. I've grown quite fond of Parts 1 and 2, and have a lengthy personal history with this genre in general: not entirely happy, but at least filled with proper helpings of romance and betrayal. "Betrayal," unfortunately, is the most apt word for At World's End. Betrayal of purpose, and of promise, and of the grand, glorious finale that everyone wanted so dearly to see.

Bloody pirates.

Review published 05.24.2006.

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