Until seeing "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," I was under the mistaken conception that the third installment of a trilogy was about wrapping things up.
You don't have to be a bowler to know that once you've set up all those pins in the first couple movies, the next logical step is to knock them all down.
Here's a wild alternative: if boatloads of exposition was cool in the second film, what's to stop it from being cool in the third? I mean, we are talking about a franchise based on an amusement park ride here. How can you possibly cover source material that rich in the span of a single 150-minute movie?
After a surprisingly dark opening scene of scores of pirates being hanged back in Merry Olde England, "Pirates 3" finds the crew of the Black Pearl off in Singapore in search of the maps that can lead them to their missing captain, who at the end of "Pirates 2" was swallowed by a kraken and taken off to the land of the dead. Johnny Depp's mincing is the only reason a second movie was ever made, so restoring him to front and center's a good idea for everyone.
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The crew's plan is complicated by the East India Company's possession of the heart of Davy Jones. That's kind of a big deal.
With the baddest squid to sail the seven seas at their command and a hatred for anything that threatens their ability to do business, the EIC is on the verge of bringing piracy to its heel. Sensing a possible end to their reckless individuality, the remaining pirates of the world turn to their last option: calling a council of the nine Pirate Lords, of course.
The only man less scrupulous than a pirate, however, may just be a businessman. Deals between various pirates and the head of the East India Company are made, broken, broken again, then broken some more for good measure, until keeping track of who's getting what out of whom would require a team of four-armed stenographers. The rest of the plot is no less tangled, taking time to delve into the sea goddess Calypso, pirate Chow Yun-Fat's plans, and any number of other semi-arbitrary threads.
There comes a point when a sailor wonders aloud whether Depp's planned his daring maneuvers ahead of time, or if he's just making it up as he goes along. It's only natural to wonder the same thing about "Pirates 3."
You know what, though? It just doesn't matter. The first "Pirates" was bogged down by a big boring love story, but Depp was crazy-funny, the fights were exciting, and there were all kinds of pirates, damn it!
"Pirates 3" is about as bloated and byzantine as it comes, but it never forgets to be funny. It's got the same verbal swordplay and nautical slapstick. It's got the same gleeful choreography and thrilling visuals. It's a big action movie, but it's in no way dumb.
It gets a great boost from its actors, too. Depp's role isn't quite as large as in the first two, but Yun-Fat, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, and the return of bumblingly verbose pirates Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook keeps things every bit as lively.
When did action films figure out it was OK to cast stars who aren't 200 pounds of prime-cut beef with those big gross veins that look like they're about to jump out of their arms and strangle you? Was it "Lord of the Rings"? Whoever realized that is a very smart man, because it makes this kind of movie infinitely watchable where it should be tedious and confusing.
That's the thing about "Pirates 3." With approximately more characters than there are people alive, and more story details than the offspring of The Silmarillion and the Bible, it should be a total train wreck (or possibly a ship-wrack). There's no real way to keep up with it. The rules of the pirate council and indeed the world itself frequently feel completely extraneous.
But that doesn't change the fact it's really, really funny, or how tightly it holds on to its sense of adventure. It's going to frustrate some people, but "Pirates 3" plays by its own rules. I don't think it's coincidence that a movie about renegade men doing their thing is so endearingly weird.