The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Depp steals 'Pirates',
but Connery can't
save 'The League'


July 17, 2003
By Franklin Harris

Johnny Depp seems to be having the most fun since he portrayed his pal Hunter S. Thompson in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

We first see him surveying his vast ocean domain from atop the mast of what appears to be a great seafaring vessel. Then we get a long shot, revealing the huge ship to be a dinghy, and Depp's character is actually only a few feet in the air, clinging to the boat's tiny sail.

Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) mounts a daring escape with the help of Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly).
© Copyright Walt Disney Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer Films
Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) mounts a daring escape with the help of Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly).
Capt. Jack Sparrow has fallen on hard times. As one character says of Sparrow, "He's the worst pirate I've ever seen." But as we learn, Capt. Jack still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

There is no doubt that Depp owns "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." He prances and twitches like Keith Richards, who Depp admits is the model for his performance, and steals every scene he's in, which is most of them. Few actors can overshadow Depp, and Depp's co-stars in "Pirates" are wise enough not to try, including Geoffrey Rush as Sparrow's nemesis, Capt. Barbossa. Part of being a great actor, as Rush is, is knowing when to let someone else have the spotlight.

It's not an overstatement to say that Depp makes the movie work. Without him, it would still be a fun, well-crafted summer movie. But Depp makes it charming as well.

The plot is standard pirate stuff. There is buried treasure (which is cursed), a damsel in distress (played by "sexist tomboy beanpole on the planet" Keira Knightly), the boy who loves her (Orlando Bloom sans his pointy "Lord of the Rings" ears) and a stuffy British naval officer (Jack Davenport). But screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have skillfully woven together all of the old pirate-movie cliches. The movie hurls us from one daring escape to another with barely a moment's rest in between. And when "Pirates" does give us the rare slow moment, it results in a wonderful character scene, such as when Sparrow and Knightly's character, Elizabeth Swann, are stranded on a deserted island that used to be a hideout for rumrunners.

"Why is the rum gone?" Jack asks, at which point Elizabeth tells him she used it to fuel a signal fire. "But why is all the rum gone?" he repeats.

You have to love a man who has his priorities in order.

"Pirates" is, of course, based on the Disney theme park ride, which may not seem an inspiring basis for a major motion picture. Certainly, it's not as good a starting point as is Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's comic book, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

Unfortunately, when faced with so rich and clever a source as Moore and O'Neill's comics, the producers of the "League" movie did the obvious thing: They chucked everything but the premise and came up with their own story, suitably dumbed down for people who think Charles Dickens is a porn star.

While the makers of "Pirates" transformed a paper-thin premise into the summer's most fun and energetic movie, the makers of "The League" turned a great premise into a boring, haphazard mess.

Moore and O'Neill take characters from Victorian literature (Allan Quatermain, the Invisible Man, Capt. Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, etc.) and unite them into a high-concept superhero team — a Justice League for the 19th century. The movie gets that much right, throwing in an extra character, Tom Sawyer (Shane West), as a youthful foil for Quatermain (Sean Connery). Never mind that in 1899, the year in which the story is set, Sawyer should be around 60 years old.

Stuart Townsend as Dorian Gray and Connery offer up good performances, but they're in the service of an insulting story full of ludicrous stunts (Capt. Nemo knows kung fu?) and obvious plot twists.

If you're only going to see one period adventure movie this summer, see "Pirates." If you're going to see two, see "Pirates" twice.

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