“Take what ye can—give nothing back!” declare some scurvy wags in Gore Verbinski’s convoluted but diverting Pirates of the Caribbean—a good motto for any summer blockbuster built for high-calorie thrills and maximum box office. Spirited thievery is a good metaphor, but perhaps cannibalism is equally apt: Pirates, likely the first film based on a theme-park ride rather than vice versa, has a swashbuckling story (and a high-born missy turned buccaneer) similar to Sinbad‘s, and a zombie onslaught as ceaseless as that in 28 Days Later. Verbinski (The Ring) overstuffs nearly two and a half hours with more cannonades, clanking cutlery, and swinging from the riggings than a Fairbanks retro, but he also delights in the quirky detail, showing the split-second scatter of a school of fish, or how wine looks as it trickles through the innards of Geoffrey Rush’s undead Captain Barbossa.
A repetitive plot dilutes some of the fun—Pirates climaxes too soon, with a Treasure Island showdown, then in a fit of generosity or confusion continues to throw climaxes our way, until it’s unclear which one merits attention. But the writing can be lively (as in the explication of the malleable “pirate’s code”—more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules) amid the requisite plot heaving, and the cast is all on the same page. Rush chews the scenery like so much Dentyne, leading the literal skeleton crew of the Black Pearl (with a literal monkey on his shoulder) in their quest to lift the curse of Aztec gold. As the governor’s kidnapped daughter, Keira Knightley gets an aerobic workout equal to the one she had in Bend It Like Beckham; playing her upright but humble rescuer haunted by the lawless blood in his veins, Orlando Bloom is efficiently heroic. Stealing the show, and other things besides, is Johnny Depp, putting the tic in opportunistic. His braided, eye-shadowed Captain Jack Sparrow is so full of bizarre behavior—lopsided strut, sotto voce imprecations, scarved preening à la Steven Tyler—that the shtick dissolves, leaving him the most believably human of the lot.