The third voyage in the “Pirates” trilogy could be touted as “the biggest, loudest and second-best (or second-worst) ‘Pirates’ ever!” — not necessarily a ringing endorsement, but honest. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” clocks in at more than 2¾ hours, but, unlike last year’s bloated sequel, at least possesses some semblance of a destination, making it slightly more coherent — if no less numbing during the protracted finale. A bountiful opening is assured. The running time could diminish this swashbuckler’s staying power, but Disney would likely leap at “Pirates IV” in a heartbeat if the principals would enlist for another tour at sea.
In a sense, the two “Pirates” sequels feel less like movies than a shared event — much like a concert where the audience sits patiently through lesser known numbers to hear the band belt out favorite tunes. A similar phenomenon occurs during the arid stretches (and there are several) in this sprawling, messy adventure, to be endured until Johnny Depp does something flamboyantly amusing or a new face like Keith Richards or Chow Yun-fat graces the screen.
The notion of “Pirates” as, foremost, a consumer product came through loud and clear in the current Entertainment Weekly, in which director Gore Verbinski referred to the screwy process of shooting the second and much of the third movie simultaneously as “How Not to Make a Film 101.”
At one point, when a character asks of Depp’s loopy Capt. Jack Sparrow, “Do you think he plans it out or just makes it up as he goes along?,” it’s hard not to wonder if Verbinski and his writing collaborators, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, aren’t slipping in a sly comment about the film itself.
Whatever quaint underpinnings there were to the class-divided romance between Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) have dissipated in the journey since the 2003 original, as their relationship goes through a series of fits, starts and betrayals — all in this movie alone.
Picking up where the second left off (though a refresher course wouldn’t hurt), the couple and Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) begin in Singapore, where they and their pirate mates hope to liberate Jack from Davy Jones’ Locker, a surreal realm between purgatory and hell. A lengthy battle ensues before the too-long quest to find Jack leads to a colorful international assembly of pirates at Shipwreck City, with the East India Trading Co.’s hissable nobleman Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) in hot pursuit and a final showdown inevitable.
That questions of life and death are somewhat fungible here helps mitigate the high level of carnage, which includes a mass hanging sequence at the outset, as Beckett wages a reign of terror in seeking to bring the pirates to heel.
Beckett’s arsenal also features the Flying Dutchman, the seemingly indestructible ghost ship captained by Davy Jones (Bill Nighy, seen fleetingly outside of his way-cool octopus visage). But can Will, Elizabeth and Jack defeat Jones and Beckett — and unfetter Will’s dad (Stellan Skarsgard), a barnacle-encrusted soul under Jones’ spell — without sacrificing someone on their side, given that slaying Jones requires that somebody take his place aboard the doomed vessel?
For the most part, those big themes and even the fundamental rules are easily obscured by the cacophony of relentless, state-of-the-art special effects and Hans Zimmer’s equally unremitting score, which at times overwhelms the dialogue. Indeed, repetitive action from multiple cannon-firing battles to ship-sucking vortexes yield diminishing returns; the pic’s greatest virtue is its sense of whimsy, whether that involves multiple Depps debating himself or the crew’s slapstick antics, which wring considerable mileage out of that monkey and parrot.
Depp’s fey, morally challenged buccaneer remains a kick and the pic’s biggest asset, whereas the now-butt-kicking Elizabeth and conflicted Will — however dreamy — have grown tiresome, especially when saddled with stirring, Errol Flynn-style “Avast, me hearties!” interludes.
In musing about the Land of the Dead, Barbossa suggests that getting there isn’t the tough part; “It’s getting back.” Given that producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s crew unlocked the secret to spinning riches out of a theme-park attraction, in this case getting there was no small feat. It’s returning there that has been something of a chore — a course “At World’s End” steadies but can’t entirely reverse.