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A SWASHBUCKLING RIDE

The first time we see Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, he is the essence of a movie swashbuckler: exotically attired, eyes cast on the horizon, standing bold in the crow's nest of his ship. That's also the last time you'll think of Jack that way, his conventionality cut short by a hilarious sight gag declaring immediately that all bets and expectations are off.

Jack Sparrow isn't the Errol Flynn type. He's more like Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, whom Depp freely admits inspired this deliriously unorthodox performance. Odd as that seems, it's obvious in each androgynous mannerism, mumbled bon mot and flighty gesticulation. Sparrow is a boozy, woozy charmer in a film set when buccaneers were like bad-boy rock stars, turning a legitimate world to their illegitimate advantage by talking their way into and out of anything.

This is a completely unpredictable performance from an actor whose reluctance to be conventional isn't surprising by now. Depp never allows anything else in Gore Verbinski's film to make our attention waver from him or long for his return when Jack isn't onscreen. He doesn't chew the scenery, but he mischievously nibbles on it, creating a miniworld around Jack that justifies all his cheeky behavior. Depp's performance alone is worth the price of admission. Maybe two tickets.

Pirates of the Caribbean (the cumbersome subtitle isn't necessary) doesn't rely solely upon Depp's ingenuity. Verbinski recreates the feel of classic ships-and-swords flicks with grand locales, imposing vessels and plenty of skullduggery. The film was inspired by a popular Disney theme park attraction, and experienced riders will spot a few visual reminders, such as a dog keeping jail cell keys just beyond the reach of imprisoned rogues. But the ride is just an excuse for Verbinski to indulge his childhood memories of Captain Blood and Treasure Island.

The plot emerging from the ride is interesting, even when screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott begin repeating themselves in the final reels. (The film is padded here and there by at least 20 minutes.) Jack is down on his luck after a mutiny when he exchanges a jail term for a possible death sentence: chasing the legendary Black Pearl and its murderous Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Jack pledges to rescue Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), daughter of a wealthy governor (Jonathan Pryce). Elizabeth's secret love, blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), is by Jack's side, gradually becoming aware of his shady legacy and its connection to the Black Pearl's cursed bounty.

Verbinski does such a fine job of setting up the conflicts that one nearly forgets that this is also a ghost story designed to shiver your timbers. The macabre special effects proving Barbossa's crew to be walking corpses don't arrive until the halfway point, and they are extraordinary. It's the kind of work that Ray Harryhausen would have imagined 40 years ago but didn't have the technology to achieve. Pirates of the Caribbean has it all: thrills, chills, comedy and romance, all in one lavishly buoyant package.

Best of all, it has Depp pushing the boundaries of heroism and camera generosity to hilarious lengths. He puts the "swish" in swashbuckling, yet never becomes a cartoon, while making everyone around him seem foolish for playing it straight. This performance is what Dustin Hoffman wishes he could have pulled off in Hook 12 years ago. It may be at least that long before anyone else is brave enough to try it again.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Grade: A-

Director: Gore Verbinski

Cast: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush, Jonathan Pryce, Jack Davenport

Screenplay: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio

Rating: PG-13; violence, scary images, alcohol abuse

Running time: 140 min.

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