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Johnny Depp makes a dandy of a pirate. In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl—an edgy, action-packed, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced interpretation of, um, a theme-park ride—Depp plays Capt. Jack Sparrow, renowned rapscallion and currently freelancing buccaneer. His look is sufficiently rakish—long hair, thick eyeliner, braided-and-beaded beard. But then he starts tilting his head in a certain saucy way, eyes askance as he gestures dramatically…and is that a lisp I hear? Whatever the inspiration for the affectation, Capt. Jack—introduced statuesquely posturing upon his sinking ship’s rapidly disappearing mast—is clearly no average sea dog. Ditto for Pirates, a swashbuckler-ghost story hybrid that is this season’s most satisfying crowd-pleaser since X2. Geoffrey Rush, Jonathan Pryce, Orlando Bloom, and Bend It Like Beckham’s Keira Knightley join Depp in this good-vs.-evil tale of the legendary pirate ship Black Pearl—”crewed by the damned,” of course. Genteel governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) has a missing gold piece whose return will lift the curse from Capt. Barbossa (a wonderfully wicked Rush) and his undead mates, who turn into skeletons by the light of the moon. Former Black Pearl commander Sparrow flits charmingly between his old gang of ne’er-do-wells and his new one of stiff Brits—whose world he crashed after rescuing Swann from a corset-related accident—as he advances his own smarter-than-’em-all agenda. Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Shrek) demonstrate a surprisingly light touch with this dark and stormy material, from Depp’s compelling anti-pirate (“You’re the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of!”) to quips about the oft-life-saving pirate’s code (“more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules”). Meanwhile, director Gore Verbinski (The Ring) and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski give us scenes that are fittingly shadowed, all full moons and fog, as well as CGI skeletons that don’t look too ridiculous even when they’re climbing up the sides of a commandeered ship (unlike, say, a certain steroidal green giant). But best of all, these outsized heroes and villains and their none-too-precise clashes are refreshingly real: In Pirates, even the nimblest swashbucklers land on their asses once in a while. —Tricia Olszewski