One doesn’t hold out much hope for a movie based on a Disney theme-park attraction, especially if one endured last year’s “Country Bears.” But “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” exceeds expectations and breaks a curse of its own, the one that says pirate movies are always terrible.
Directed by Gore Verbinski (“The Ring,” “Mouse Hunt”), “Pirates” is unquestionably too long and has too many endings. But it otherwise buckles swashes, shivers timbers and battens down hatches the way big-budget summertime adventures ought to, and its seemingly interminable storyline is more than made up for by its juicy leading performances.
That storyline is as follows: Lovely Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) is trying to be an average 18th-century English girl, but her prim father (Jonathan Pryce) wants her to wear corsets and marry the newly promoted Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport).
She has her eye, though, on Will (Orlando Bloom), an honest blacksmith’s apprentice whom Elizabeth and her father rescued years ago when they found him set adrift by pirates. He’s an adopted brother, more or less, and the romantic feelings are just starting to kindle.
Enter Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), whom Norrington calls “the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of.” (“But you HAVE heard of me,” Jack counters.) He’s mildly insane and seems drunk all the time, and he wears more eye makeup than is needful. He has no ship or crew at the moment, but he knows his piracy. So when Elizabeth is abducted by Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) of the dread ship Black Pearl, Will persuades him to lead the way in rescuing her.
Will and Jack are an amusingly mismatched pair, with Bloom in fully earnest Errol Flynn mode and Depp as a devil-may-care mercenary — Han Solo, but more slurred and staggering.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, learns about the curse placed upon the Black Pearl and all her crew, in a breathlessly nightmarish sequence that hints at the film’s true exhilarating potential. Rush is deliciously menacing as Capt. Barbossa, more campy than evil, clearly enjoying every scenery-chewing moment as he speaks in the “yarr, matey” dialect we’ve come to expect from cartoon pirates. When he and Depp finally get in the same room at the same time, the ensuing ham-actor fireworks are, as expected, highly entertaining.
The film, written by the team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (“Shrek,” “Aladdin”), is almost equal parts talking and fighting. It is also about 90 percent plot, with Barbossa needing Elizabeth to lift the curse, and Will learning about his past, and Barbossa, Jack and Will trading and betraying each other to meet their various needs — noble and otherwise — with alarming frequency.
It is all engaging, if not especially compelling; you keep watching because it’s neat to look at and is often good-naturedly silly, not because you really care what happens next. But you DO keep watching.
B- (2 hrs., 23 min.; )