In Graham Greene's novel The Heart of the Matter, Major Scobie invents a story for a young boy in hospital about "a peculiarly ferocious lot of pirates who haunted the West Indies". The nominal hero works for the British Government; the "real heroes", though, are the pirates. The boy laps it up; as does the anguished young woman in the bed beside him. Both enjoy the bit about lieutenant Batty Davis - "so called because of his insane rages when he would send a whole ship's crew to the plank".
Like Scobie, the writers behind Pirates of the Caribbean know how to amuse the afflicted - the disease, in our case, being a helpless need to catch the latest, wham-blam summer hit. That Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (both of whom worked on Shrek) have had to spin their story out of a Disneyland theme ride may strike some as an insurmountable hurdle (the ride takes 14 minutes; the film lasts 143). That their director is Gore Verbinski - responsible for last year's oafish remake of The Ring - may appal others. And yet, during the film's middle stretch at least, Pirates does the trick, harrying us through a breakneck tour of smoking ships, cobwebbed rigging, moonlight X-rays and one man's hurdy-gurdy grin. Set against the robotic tail-chasing of Charlie's Angels 2 or the dry, angst of Hulk, its roiling, liquid energy connects like a slap to the face.
Which is not to say that the plot is straightforward. Meet pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), ex-Cap'n of the Black Pearl. Jack's mutinous crew, led by pizza-faced, monkey-stroking Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), left Jack to die on a desert island so they could plunder a treasure chest of Aztec gold. But the jokes on them - the moolah was cursed and, d'oh, they've now joined the ranks of the undead. Knowing nothing of this, Jack arrives in British-controlled Port Royal. He wants to win back the Pearl, and thinks the HMS Interceptor, reputedly the "fastest ship in the army's fleet", can help him do it.
But wait, there's more... in the corsetted shape of pouty young Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), all set to marry poker-up-his-bum naval official, Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport). Instead, she tumbles into the drink, only to be rescued by Jack. And kidnapped almost immediately afterwards, by Barbossa's gang of ghouls. Desperate to get her back, Ms Swann's blacksmith beloved, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) joins forces with Sparrow and purloins the Interceptor. Will, it transpires, is the son of a Black Pearl pirate. Indeed, he holds the key to unlocking the Aztec curse. But can he trust Jack, or will the buccaneer prove a law unto himself?
Amidst this early confusion, Depp initially seems the most tiresome element of all. From Benny & Joon on down, the actor has long shown a penchant for these kind of "counter-culture" parts (pale freaks, tanned Gypsies - so long as they don't work in a bank, they're alright with Johnny).
Also horribly familiar is Depp's Brechtian, punkish desire to alienate us from the action, his determination to signal - via camp pouts, wacky accents, whimsical walks and childlike hand wiggling - that all is illusion (only Helena Bonham Carter, that other supremely self-conscious gothic babe, can out-do him at this game). Poor Depp. He's apparently unaware that what he mostly offers is a lifestyle model for wealthy slummers. Chocolat, anyone?
The shock is that in Pirates, at long last, someone calls his bluff. Halfway through the film, Orlando Bloom's blacksmith wonders aloud if undue exposure to the sun has made Jack Sparrow the way he is. He then mimics the pirate's dazed and confused posturing - in the process, nailing Depp's "act", too. Apparently, this scene was Bloom's idea, and it's a masterstroke. Tired of watching the elaborate show, he takes a poke at this pretentious clown; and with that battle won we, the Johnny-haters in the audience, are finally able to relax and get swept along.
Whether by chance or no, Jack's dialogue shows an instant improvement. In fact, his moral slipperiness becomes one of the film's chief pleasures. Whether trying to nuzzle Elizabeth when they're stranded together on an island, or flirting with Barbossa over the cursed gold, he gains a proper, sharp edge. Ultimately, Sparrow's what you might call a swinger - with just a dash of couch potato thrown in. Watching another miscreant get short-shrift from the authorities, he whispers cheerily: "I want you to know, I was rooting for you." Later, he reassures Elizabeth that, "It would never have worked between us!", and it's only half a joke. Errol Flynn's Captain Blood won the heart of a lady, not to mention a pardon from the government. Nothing with Jack is as clear-cut.
As played by Rush, Barbossa is almost as good - a riff on Peter Pan's Captain Hook, similarly sneery and time-obsessed. The other delight is Mackenzie Crook (Gareth from The Office), as Ragetti, one of the Black Pearl's barely human, ghastly-by-moonlight crew. Just looking at his face (already cadaverous and opal-pale) makes you smile. That, and the thought of him back in Gareth mode, telling his colleagues about life on a flash Hollywood set. On screen, he suffers a la Blackadder's Baldrick, noting of his false wooden eye that it "splinters something terrible". Off screen, you can all but hear him confiding: "No offence to Mr Depp, but he wouldn't last five minutes in the territorial army..."
And so we leave the cinema happy, our heads full of Gareth and gangsters-at-sea. Context, of course, is all. Looked at from one angle, Pirates is worryingly similar to Martin Scorsese's woeful Gangs of New York. Glossy, bloated, phonily feminist and class-war-lite, they even share the same trope - ie a talisman, passed on from slain father to handsome, conflicted son. But where Gangs thought it was profound, Pirates harbours no such delusion. Bill the Butcher would make a perfect Disneyland dummy (roll up, roll up, let Bill take aim with his trusty knife) but I'm sure Daniel Day Lewis doesn't see it that way; Depp, by contrast, appears to have embraced middle-brow spectacle. What's the betting he's already signed up for the sequel?
Graham Greene saw Jack coming - the full-blown hero pirate; not a foil, not a do-gooder-in-disguise, but an extraordinary, decent criminal; equally naughty and nice. It barely matters that Greene's own film creations were more brutal (see that most indecent of pirates, Harry Lime). Engrossed in his own dark thoughts, Greene tossed a little revelation our way: sometimes the anguished world needs a bed-time story - one that children of all ages can enjoy.Reuse content