IT'S possible that someone, somewhere, has put together a flowchart or diagram tracking the many plots, subplots, digressions, divagations and flights of whimsy in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," which, depending on your tolerance for Byzantine complication for complication's sake, might have been alternately titled "At Wit's End."
The third in a series that appears to be hinting at immortality in more ways than one, "Pirates 3" demands intimate knowledge of the first two installments, not to mention a sterling memory and attention span. In other words, it pays to be prepared. Seriously, this thing is a stern master -- walk in casually off the street and you risk nearly three hours of very high-octane confusion.
For the diligent and the faithful, however, director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, laboring under the bombastic tutelage of Jerry Bruckheimer, have assembled another collection of exciting set-pieces with bellowed dialogue in between. Exciting, distracting and quite possibly permanently concentration impairing, what "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" offers is a wonderfully scenic medley of impressive action sequences so lengthy, elaborate and numerous that remembering what came before becomes a kind of test of mental focus. Me, I failed it, but then, my concentration is shot. If the following plot summary sounds clear and well-ordered, I should probably mention that I consulted secondary materials to help me make sense of what I'd just seen. Any ensuing clarity, in other words, shouldn't be taken as a reflection of my addled viewing experience.
At the beginning of the film, Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), chairman of the East India Trading Co., has imposed martial law, suspended habeas corpus and begun rounding up suspected insurgents -- or rather, pirates -- and systematically hanging them regardless of sex, age or the condition of their teeth.
Those who remember the end of the last film will recall that when we last left our growing cast of heroes, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and the crew of the Black Pearl were hiding out with the witch Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), who brought Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) back from the dead in order to lead the crew in the rescue of Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who, when we last saw him, was being swallowed by an adipose sea monster called the kraken.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Elizabeth, Will and Capt. Barbossa have traveled to Singapore to steal a navigational chart from the Chinese pirate Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat). Some intra-buccaneerial fighting ensues, but it eventually becomes apparent that they must band together with the other lords of the pirate clans to defeat Beckett and Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), whose heart Beckett now possesses.
It's nearly an hour before we lay eyes on Jack Sparrow, marooned on the desert island that is Davy Jones' locker, confronting various doppelgangers and muttering to himself about nosy rocks. Until now, the movie has had a stewy quality -- the baroque art direction is impressive but oppressive after a while, and it's hard to see or breathe. Jack's minimalist introduction on a sun-drenched patch of sand is a respite that immediately perks things up.
As before, the main characters' motives are multifarious and usually ulterior: Will wants to save his father and marry Elizabeth, Davy Jones wants his heart back, Beckett wants the chart as well as the "nine pieces of eight" the pirate leaders possess, Jack wants immortality, everyone wants to be captain. None of it, ultimately, matters very much. Like its predecessors, "Pirates 3" is a ride (an improvement on the last one, which looked like a ride) that takes us from Singapore, across a frozen ocean, over a giant waterfall to the surrealist desert, to a constructivist Shipwreck Cove and beyond. We get waterlogged ghosts, removable brains, monkey cannonballs and a 50-foot woman.
All this inter-protagonist squabbling and wanting and pining and plotting just bogs down the spectacle, and I can't describe the depths of my despond as the movie continued to pick up narrative threads past the second hour mark. I almost hate to say it, but at this point why bother with a story at all? We're here for the cheekbones and the swords and the tentacle-faces, and we don't have all day.
In broody moods and Mystic-tanned to near oblivion (Knightley is painted a distracting orange), Bloom and Knightley nevertheless make a nice swashbuckling couple together. Keith Richards makes a desultory appearance as Capt. Teague, Jack's father, but the bit doesn't add much beyond an obligatory meta-nod to Depp's actorly inspiration. As the eternally ambivalent and ambiguous Jack Sparrow, Depp, meanwhile, is the soul of the movie and, as before, completely absconds with the show.
Personally, I'd rather see him dine with relish on half a peanut than sit through yet another CG-whiz sequence, but maybe that's just me.
"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action/adventure violence and some frightening images. Running time: 2 hours, 47 minutes. In general release. Opens Friday, with evening shows Thursday at some theaters.