You can say many things about Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, but you can't say it doesn't give you your money's worth. For 167 minutes, you get familiar characters, elaborate set pieces, visual spectacle, multiple double-crosses (some genuinely unexpected), epic battles, thoroughly un-Disney-like blood and guts, and some impressively weird moments that would never be allowed in any mainstream movie if there were a doubt its financial success is all-but-guaranteed. What there isn't is a slow moment; unlike its cinematic predecessor Dead Man's Chest, this third installment doesn't waste your time.
It's a wee bit odd to see the Disney magic-castle logo followed almost immediately by a scene of prisoners being hanged en masse, as a narrator informs us the Bill of Rights had to be suspended during wartime, including the right of habeas corpus, all at the behest of evil capitalist overlord Dick Cheney, er, Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), who possesses a very unique weapon of mass destruction: the heart of octopus-headed baddie Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), who has an unfortunate habit of using scorched-earth tactics, leaving Beckett without many detained enemy combatants to torture.
Meanwhile, our familiar crew of pirates, led by the impossibly clean (and clean-cut) Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), alongside recently resurrected villain-turned-sorta-hero Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), have made it to Singapore, where they seek the services of pirate lord Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat, thoroughly dirtied-up) to secure a boat ride to the afterlife, where they hope to find ol' squid-bait pal Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). How the gang got to Singapore without a ship is never explained, and Barbossa's resurrection from the dead is mostly glossed over; seems voodoo queen Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) can bring back people by magic, except for when she can't.
The trip to the afterlife is a thing of beauty for many reasons. There are voyages through icy caves and star fields and over waterfalls at the very edge of what appears to be a flat Earth. And then there's the land of the dead itself, where the Black Pearl is crewed by multiple Jack Sparrows, some of whom kill one another and at least one of whom seems determined to initiate sexual congress with a goat, all while the score starts to verge into Brian Eno territory. It's hard enough to imagine producer Jerry Bruckheimer giving moments like this the go-ahead, let alone anyone at the Mouse House. Is this really the same Disney company that censored the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride when it was determined that one of the animatronic buccaneers appeared to have lecherous intentions? Presumably Depp had some say in the weirdness that briefly ensues, and what results is some of the most subversive cinematic experimentation you're likely to see in a "tentpole franchise" epic in this or any year. If Hunter Thompson were a dead pirate, this how his purgatory would be.
While we're on the subject of unlikely subject matter for Disney, let us briefly make mention of a rather-gruesome frostbite scene and a moray-eel-headed villain in Davy Jones' crew whose attacks—and phallic appearance—resemble H.R. Giger's title character in Alien. Kids today may be immune to such things, but just in case they aren't, mom and dad, take heed: The movie may rate a hearty "Arrr!" from the young'uns, but by all rights, it ought to have also received an "R." Just remember, boys and girls, cutlasses and cannons don't kill people; people do. And fish-headed demons. And zombie monkeys, if you happen to leave them unsupervised near boxes of fireworks. I think that's what the film's trying to tell us, anyway.
The biggest problem area in the first two Pirates movies was that director Gore Verbinksi never seemed entirely comfortable with the big action sequences, especially the ship-to-ship climaxes. Could be he was just intimidated by the scope initially, for he seems to have settled into a groove for this one, delivering a grand-finale blowout over a large whirlpool in the middle of a storm that just goes on and on, and you never want it to stop. True, the bizarre mix of campy humor and lethal action sometimes feels a bit off, as when Will and Elizabeth do an extended romantic dance number in the midst of a melee, but overall the silliness quotient is down, as it should be. Yes, Keith Richards shows up in a cameo, and he gets a good laugh, but it's in character and believable in the context of the story. Elizabeth manages to score a few laughs when she gives an impassioned, Braveheart-style "Frrrrreeeeedooommmm!" speech right before the final battle, but one senses this part was actually intended to be serious. Whatever.
It still strains credulity that Elizabeth seems to own the only beauty products that exist in the entire Pirates universe. While everyone else has yellowing hepatitis-colored eyes, syphilis scars, bad teeth, what-have-you—even girly-man Will gets dirt on his face as time goes on—Elizabeth somehow manages to look like a model at a photo shoot the entire time, despite undergoing most of the same trials as everyone else. Hell, Sao Feng runs his own bath house, and he's still grimy! Yo, ho, what pirate life are you living?
Knightley's occasional woodenness aside, this is one strong ensemble cast. Nighy reveals new aspects of Davy Jones that add depth to the monster, though credit must also go to the crew who animate his octo-puss. Depp, who seemed like he was going through the motions in part two, seems to have found his spontaneity again. Rush embraces every pirate clich you can think of ("What ARRRR ye doin'?"), while Chow is, well, Chow, though unfortunately Sao Feng isn't as significant a character as the movie's marketing might have led you to believe. Bloom is never going to be the standout in this ensemble, but he does get a bit more to do here, as Will gets more devious than you would have thought. Harris' witch doctor similarly shows unexpected depth, and we get the best work yet from Lee Arenberg and MacKenzie Crook as Pintel and Ragetti . . . a little of their shtick goes a long way, and it's rationed out just right. Ditto Jack the monkey, who steals a few scenes of his own (didn't Peter Gabriel do a song about him once?).
But, uh, why are they all searching for "nine pieces of eight"? Shouldn't they be called pieces of nine, if there are in fact that many of them? Just asking.
At the heart of At World's End is the idea that magic and mystery are quickly being replaced in the world by predictability and commerce, a notion that might sound odd coming from a Bruckheimer/Disney production with about a zillion different merchandising tie-ins. Jack Sparrow comments that even though he may die, he has come back from the dead before, to which Barbossa replies that isn't something to be counted on. Indeed not. The pirate movie was a dead genre, and after Dead Man's Chest, even this rare hit version seemed like it was dying from a lack of ideas. Equally unlikely is a third act in a cinematic trilogy that proves to be the best of the three, but behold! The odds have been beaten, the pirates have cheated death yet again, and they have done so by resurrecting a welcome dose of magic unto a kingdom that was in danger of losing it all to soulless commerce.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END WAS DIRECTED BY GORE VERBINSKI; WRITTEN BY TED ELLIOTT AND TERRY ROSSIO, BASED ON CHARACTERS CREATED BY ELLIOTT AND ROSSIO AND STUART BEATTIE AND JAY WOLPERT, BASED ON WALT DISNEY'S PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN RIDE. COUNTYWIDE.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.