King Sean and The Rolling Stone

 

Pirates of the Caribbean
and
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, August 11, 2003

 

A couple of American adventure movies set in British Empire days are bringing old-fashioned subject matter back to the theatres. Of the two, Johnny Depp's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" definitely has the longest title.

It's also better executed than Sean Connery's "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," which always seems about to collapse in a heap, especially during a chaotic car chase through the streets of Venice. Personally, I wasn't aware that Venice had streets. Perhaps the filmmakers got Venice confused with Vienna?

Still, murky as it is, "Gentlemen" somehow keeps its act together well enough to achieve a surprisingly consistent level of mediocrity. At least it's built on a more intriguing premise than "Pirates," although that's not saying much because "Pirates" is inspired by an amusement park ride. A very good amusement park ride indeed, but not something that the world has been crying out to see on screen.

I wonder what's next in this trend of leveraging non-narrative brand names into movies. Maybe "Ralph Lauren's Polo: The Movie," in which Edward Norton plays a young WASP blueblood from the Bronx who lights out for the Wyoming Territory to ride herd on a seersucker ranch? Or possibly "Krispy Kreme: The Artery Strikes Back"?

In contrast, "Gentlemen" is inspired by that time-honored movie source, the comic book. In this well-regarded 1998 series by Alan Moore, characters from late Victorian bestsellers team up to fight bad guys. This is a nifty idea, and it's fun to see Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, H.G. Wells' Invisible Man, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Bram Stoker's vampiress Mina Harker, and Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray get acquainted. (Tom Sawyer joins up to provide an American gentleman, but he seems to have acquired Huck Finn's personality.)

In fact, the movie would be more entertaining if they'd cut out around 30 minutes of fistfights and just keep introducing more characters from that fecund era, such as Sherlock Holmes, Gunga Din, Mr. Kurtz, and Jude the Obscure.

Unfortunately, "Gentlemen" uses mostly low budget actors, so much of the pleasure of this kind of movie is missing. The reason people would go to a movie based on "Happy Days" is because they want to see if, say, Freddie Prinze Jr. makes a good Fonzie. Same here. We want to see how Tobey Maguire, not somebody named Shane West, does as a 20-something Tom Sawyer.

Fortunately, Sean Connery fully lives up to our expectations in his nuanced portrayal of Sean Connery. He is cast, by the way, as Allan Quatermain, the great white hunter from H. Rider Haggard's terrific African yarn "King Solomon's Mine." Although he doesn't have many superpowers, he's the leader of the League, because he's Sean Connery and everybody else in the movie isn't. Don't you think it's about time that Scotland seceded from the United Kingdom and crowned him in Balmoral Castle as King Sean the First?

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy violence, language, and innuendo.

Nobody ever accused Johnny Depp of looking every inch a king. He's famous for his high cheekbones, although that's just another way of saying he has a delicate little jaw. He doesn't look like a classic Hollywood leading man. Instead, he has the gaunt, somewhat androgynous face of a Rolling Stone.

In fact, Depp moved to Hollywood originally to try for a recording contract, and he long played guitar in rock bands. In this era when most every actor in Hollywood pumps iron and thinks about scoring a prescription for testosterone and human growth hormone, the slightly-built Depp moved to France, where he doesn't appear to lift anything heavier than cigarettes.

In "Pirates," with eyeliner and scarves that Steven Tyler of Aerosmith would envy, Depp portrays the foppish Captain Jack Sparrow, the feyest buccaneer to ever sashay the plank. But, Cap'n Jack's not gay. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!) He's just an early 70s rock star in a time warp, the kind of intentionally effeminate heterosexual superstar who, like Depp, winds up married to a model.

Depp's conception of pirates as the glam rockers of their day isn't too historically outlandish. Pirate captains often either came from or aspired to the lace-cuffed Cavalier gentry. Aristocrats put on airs of delicate refinement that modern democratic American males would find downright dubious.

Amusing as Depp is (and he might be very funny indeed if you could comprehend more than half of what he gurgles), his performance lacks the charisma of Keith Richards or Mick Jagger in their primes. This is a Disney movie, so there's little sense of the 70s rocker's lust and menace. Depp is as harmlessly genial, polite, and befuddled as Mike Myers spoofing, with velvet smoking jacket and martini glass, the Stones' elderly guitarist-duffer Ronnie Wood.

Rated PG-13 for action/adventure violence.

 

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