Buried under kerchief, blousy shirt, and the make-up of a heavy metal fashion victim, Johnny Depp bobs and weaves his way through Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) as Jack Sparrow, a black pirate made over as a lovable rogue. Less Douglas Fairbanks than an aquatic Artful Dodger gone to seed, he’s a high seas con man with a heart of tarnished stolen gold.
He seems to have stumbled in from his own private movie but fearlessly makes his home in this tale of an Aztec curse that turns a vicious crew of plunderers into the walking dead on a haunted ship that floats in a haze of mist and smoke. Geoffrey Rush “Argh”s and “Matey”s his way through the film like an old Hollywood ham and the dashing Orlando Bloom and the spunky Keira Knightley (as the obligatory cute romantic leads) play along with as much enthusiasm, but none of them can wrestle the screen from Depp, who keeps the film delightfully off-balance.
The first film of what is becoming a tiresome franchise is still the best, even if it inspired by the Disneyland theme park ride. The unexpectedly light touch of director Gore Verbinski (Rango) gives this high spirited comic swashbuckler a playful tone without sinking it into self-parody. He’s so deft that it’s almost shocking when the bloodthirsty pirates cut a swath through Her Majesty’s Navy (offscreen, of course, to preserve that essential PG-13 rating), while the contrived happy ending and dubious moral (pirates can be good people too) almost swamps the high spirited lark.
He puts a Jackie Chan flourish of high energy and gymnastic action on the swashbuckling stunts and old-fashioned swordplay and keeps this lark sailing along so swiftly and smoothly that you hardly notice the 135 minute running time until the ride is over. A slight but disarmingly entertaining surprise, which isn’t the case with the sequels that, as of this writing, are still coming.