Casablanca was written on the hoof, with pages scrawled while Bogie and Berg waited in their trailers. The Bourne Identity was constantly revised, with scenes reshot weeks before release. Apocalypse Now was forged as typewriters clacked along with the gunfire. And now there’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End, with A-list screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio on set for the duration of the marathon shoot, working to not one but two fixed release dates, trying to expand a universe and craft a franchise with an army-sized crew on standby, the studio till kerchinging on a daily basis.
So, in the spirit of the series, this review is being written with no revision or pause for thought – it’s a one-hit splurge of opinion on what’s likely to be the year’s most commercially successful movie. Let’s see how that works out.
So, Captain Jack is back once more. Eventually. Friends (Swann, Turner, Gibbs) and enemies (Swann, Turner, Barbossa – allegiances change quickly) ally to save him from Davy Jones’ Locker, the netherworld he was transported to through the belly of the Kraken at the end of Dead Man’s Chest. How this happens and the internal logic of the Pirates universe probably won’t be entirely clear even after repeat viewing. This is perhaps the core problem with the Pirates sequels: the inevitable need to expand from Curse Of The Black Pearl means new mythology and alt-world rules are constantly being introduced and explanations made. Why can rotten-gobbed juju mistress Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) resurrect Barbossa but not another key character? There’s probably a reason in there somewhere. Why is Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) in thrall to Beckett (the smartly snide – but rather underused - Tom Hollander) one moment, only to cutlass loose the next? Because the story needs to progress. Why can Jones come ashore on a photogenic sandbank when he’s cursed to remain at sea? Because he’s standing on a bit of the ship and, well, it looks great and allows Gore Verbinski a nod to Sergio Leone.
Of course all this would be snide nitpicking if At World’s End delivered a rousing enough voyage. But as plot development crashes against story twist against twist, the picture loses any emotional undertow. The knowledge that the rules might change and another mortal loophole be untied leaves the audience with precious little substance to cling onto. If someone dies, well – hey – you suspect they could be brought back with another expeditious keystroke, which leaves the actors – sorry about this – all at sea. Jack is more darkly lunatic than usual, but his fate is never really in doubt, while the scenes of Depp playing against other versions of himself lack the wit and panache you would expect (and the mini-Jacks are a definite mistake). Bloom, often the most criticised of the epic ensemble, is actually rather fun – light-hearted and footed, enjoying being a touch more duplicitous than usual. The rest are overshadowed by the cheeky monkey, with the exception of Chow Yun-Fat, who brings genuine menace to Far Eastern pirate Sao Feng – despite being saddled with Shakespearean monologues (length, not quality). But then, he’s not alone in being verbose. Everyone in World’s End talks as if their lives depend on it (to be fair, they often do). Er, running out of space… So: too much talk; bit violent for a family film; final action sequence extraordinary in its FX and production design; incredible technical achievement all round; wish we cared more what happened to everyone. The end. That didn’t really work, did it?