Dir: Gore Verbinski. US. 2003. 144 mins.

Thank heavens for Johnny Depp. The maverick actor who has generally avoided roles in Hollywood event pictures to date survives his first Jerry Bruckheimer production not only with integrity intact but the knowledge that he enhances the end product to such a degree that its sloppy by-the-numbers plot seems less transparent than is usual in Mr Bruckheimer's annual extravaganzas. And Depp looks like he is having fun as cockney pirate Jack Sparrow. His sheer force of personality makes Pirates Of The Caribbean an almost winning affair as opposed to the picture-perfect blandness of Hartnett and Affleck in Bruckheimer's other cursed Pearl movie - Pearl Harbor. Disney has a mighty box office winner on its hands with this film-of-a-theme-park-ride summer event which is getting the kind of lavish marketing push that hasn't been seen since, well, Pearl Harbor. The studio is smartly capitalising on the fact that this is an old-fashioned sword-crossing adventure amid the bombardment of hard-to-swallow high-kick actioners like Full Throttle and The Matrix Reloaded. High-scoring test screenings seem to indicate that their strategy is a wise one.

The very notion of basing a film on Disneyland's popular ride of the same name will infuriate critics and cinephiles who will talk of the film's inferiority to the great pirate swashbucklers of old such as Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and The Black Swan. Indeed Pirates doesn't even attempt to establish a specific historical background on which to hang its set-pieces and swordfights. Like a ride, it's all about thrills, and there is neither suspense, credibility nor character development enough to stimulate audiences on anything other than a visceral level.

But critics can walk the plank, for all Disney and Bruckheimer care. Audiences have never complained about these films being mentally unchallenging before. Pirates is loaded with the spectacle, effects and beautiful people one expects from the producer's films and delivers in spades on the levels it intends to.

The film starts with a short prologue in which the ship carrying the new Governor of Port Royal (Jonathan Pryce) from England comes across another ship which has just been ransacked by pirates. The governor's vessel picks up an unconscious boy called Will Turner among the wreckage and the Governor's young daughter Elizabeth, who is tending to him, discovers a silver pendant around his neck which she keeps for herself.

The film then skips to some years later in Port Royal where Elizabeth (the feisty Keira Knightley) is being groomed for marriage to the ambitious Commodore Norrington (Davenport) to the chagrin of Will (the spirited Bloom) who also loves her. Enter Jack Sparrow, a pirate anxious to commandeer a ship after his last one, the Black Pearl, was stolen by the conniving Captain Barbossa (Rush).

But no sooner has Jack saved the life of Elizabeth after she has fainted and fallen into the ocean than the port is besieged by the Black Pearl itself. After a terrible battle, Elizabeth is kidnapped by Barbossa who reveals to her that he and his crew are living under a curse which forces them to live as the undead. Only once a plundered treasure is restored in its entirety can the curse be broken. And Elizabeth's pendant is the final silver coin which they are looking for.

Needless to say, Sparrow and Turner are quickly in hot pursuit of the Pearl, while the British fleet under Norrington is not far behind.

Gore Verbinksi, who enjoyed a huge hit last year with The Ring, directs efficiently, although there is one too many meander in the wafer-thin plot and some of the combat scenes are clumsily choreographed.

Swaggering around with delicious aplomb and speaking with a lazy drawl as if slipping in and out of intoxication, Depp makes a classic lovable rogue. He reveals a hitherto unknown talent for action and broad comedy which will send his asking price soaring for the sequel. Whether the unpredictable actor will do it or not, he's worth every penny.

Prod cos: Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Walt Disney Pictures
Worldwide dist: Buena Vista/BVI
Exec prods:
Mike Stenson, Chad Oman, Bruce Hendricks, Paul Deason
Jerry Bruckheimer
Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, from a story by Elliott, Rossio, Stuart Beattie, Jay Wolpert, based on Walt Disney's Pirates Of The Caribbean
Dariusz Wolski
Prod des:
Brian Morris
Craig Wood, Stephen Rivkin, Arthur Schmidt
Klaus Badelt
Main cast:
Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce