When it comes to an open-ended series, it is generally a good idea to revisit the previous film before embarking on the latest. But in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, even a review of Dead Man's Chest might not be enough to "savvy" (as Jack Sparrow would put it) At World's End, rated PG-13 for action violence. So many plots and subplots are entangled in this bloated three-hour sea adventure that even die-hard fans will find them difficult to follow.
As we rejoin Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), they are docked in Singapore to convince one of nine pirate lords to give them a ship and a crew so they can rescue Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and the Black Pearl from Davy Jones' Locker.
Their plan is to call a meeting of the "brethren court" of the nine lords in order to free Calypso, a sea goddess imprisoned by a previous court so pirates could have free reign over the seas. Only then, they surmise, can they save their kind from extinction by the East India Trading Company.
In the meantime, the villainous Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) still holds the heart of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and uses it to command Jones' ship, the Flying Dutchman. While doing the bidding of his employers, he also blackmails the tentacle-faced captain to get his hands on a magical compass that directs the possessor to his heart's greatest desire.
Confused? You will be even more so by three additional story lines in which Will, Elizabeth, and Jack each harbor secret motivations for going along with the chart set forth.
Yet as convoluted as the plot is, the worst sin director Gore Verbinski commits is not in overloading what should be a cheeky character- and atmosphere-driven sea tale, but in forgetting why audiences loved the Pirates franchise in the first place.
A pirate's appeal is based in large part on his status as a renegade. But Verbinski gives us pirate codes, law books, and congresses-hardly the stuff of swashbuckling lore. Granted, the motley assembly double- and triple-cross each other at every turn, but the very idea of some pirate king sitting down with quill and parchment to pen a set of buccaneer regulations seems antithetical to the very idea of piracy. I prefer to imagine they would never read a book, let alone write one.
Verbinski's second most egregious error is how little he features the crowd-pleaser, Captain Jack Sparrow. "Do you think he plans it all out, or just makes it up as he goes along?" one British captain asks another of the flamboyant scalawag. The same could be asked of Depp as an actor, whose expanding loopiness threatens to break the bounds of logic, yet somehow still works. This makes it all the more puzzling that there is so little of him in At World's End. Jack doesn't make an appearance for the first half hour, and then most of his contributions are as bizarre aside sequences.
The good news is, if yet another Pirates sequel is preparing for sail (and the ending clearly suggests that it is), it promises to be a tighter ship without the dead weight of Knightly and Bloom. Then the franchise can set the course it always should have, navigating by its north star, Captain Jack Sparrow.