Captain Jack Sparrow does a lot of crazy stuff in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Nary a moment passes in the nearly three-hour-long film that doesn't feature Cap'n Jack getting thrown through the air or turning into a sea creature or crackin' wise to various authority figures, which makes sense: The two prior Pirates films have hinged on the funny, bizarre, and charming performance of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, and At World's End is no different. "Do you think he plans it all?" one bewildered sailor asks after Cap'n Jack spouts a witty quip, then shoots himself skyward using some rope and a cannon. "Or just makes it up as he goes along?"
That's the question—not so much with Depp, who's great regardless of whether or not he's ad libbing, but with the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks as a whole. When the fun first film proved to be an unexpected smash, writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were tasked with retroactively making a goofy popcorn flick the first entry in an epic trilogy. Last year's first sequel, Dead Man's Chest, was hectic and cartoonish, a nonsensical mess of spectacle that couldn't help but be wildly entertaining. But with World's End, it's time to cash in on the plot threads and the characters and the gazillion-dollar budget, and it all becomes pretty obvious: Captain Jack might be planning his hijinks, but the filmmakers are desperately making this up as they go, with pretty sketchy results.
At World's End's surprisingly talky and complex plot is strained enough to defy explanation—suffice to say it involves boring hero Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), distressed damsel Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), octopus-faced monster Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), and Chinese pirate Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat, in what amounts to a glorified cameo). And yes, Keith Richards—Depp's inspiration for Sparrow—shows up for a few minutes, as does a monkey shot out of a cannon, a midget firing the 18th century's equivalent of a bazooka, and an angry giantess who morphs into a whole lot of crabs. (Don't ask. I thought I was paying pretty close attention, but man, I have no idea what the hell that giant crab chick was all about.) The stakes, as the characters repeatedly remind us, are very high, with pirates uniting to fight the eeevil East India Trading Company—and by the film's final battle, a drawn-out brawl in the midst of a mightily raging CG maelstrom, director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer end their makeshift trilogy with a bang. There's a ton of stuff going on here, and yeah, most of it's pretty fun, but it all feels piecemeal and confused, at best confusing and at worst boring. (Some sequences do stand out as truly outstanding: In a few scenes that'd be more at home in Depp and Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Sparrow goes on some inspired, fantastically tripped-out hallucinations, which are as hilariously incongruous in a Disney blockbuster as a certain Rolling Stone.)
In a recent interview, Bruckheimer offered what might be the sharpest analysis of film criticism I've ever read: "The real critics," he said, "are the people who pay money." So far, the first two Pirates have grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, a number that is most definitely not to be fucked with. The real critics have already spoken with a roar of approval, and will likely do so again with At World's End. So sure, I can lob a few quibbles (At World's End isn't as satisfying as it should be, it's overlong and overwritten, and, unlike its predecessors, it doesn't bring anything new to the table), but that won't change the fact that it's still a solid popcorn flick. And also: While Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is probably the weakest of the series, it also boasts an ending that pretty much promises another adventure and/or excuse for Jack Sparrow's hijinks. Which is fine by me—as big summer blockbusters go, I can think of a lot worse things than a few more Pirates movies.