"Pirates of the Caribbean" has had quite a ride, and I wouldn't bet that it's over, despite the seeming finality of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," the most visually spectacular, action-packed and surreal of the adventures of Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).
The movie begins with a terrifying image: a line of pirates and their accused confederates, shuffling on chained feet to the gallows, with a narrator citing an all-too-modern-sounding list of suspended rights. But this is no message movie. Soon we're on another wild ride from the tropics to the frozen wastes, as we pick up what happened since we last saw Jack in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" (pulled into the deep in the clutches of a kraken) and follow the last battles between the free-roaming pirates and their allies against their nemeses from the East India Co., along with the final resolution of the contentious romance between Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom).
The capper to 2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" and 2006's "Dead Man's Chest" was actually shot concurrently with the second (not incidentally, the third-highest international grosser of all time), and when they say "World's End," they're not kidding. The movie plunges us down to Davy Jones' locker, then hurls us into a series of violent voyages and confrontations in arctic wastes, South Sea isles and galleon-shredding gales, with Sparrow, the beauteous Swann, her sword-swain Turner and Sparrow's glibly treacherous rival captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) clashing with their deadly 18th Century pursuers, led by the smugly murderous Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander).
Also in the fray: the pirates of the Singapore led by Chow Yun-Fat as the ill-tempered Capt. Sao Feng, and, aboard the Flying Dutchman, Beckett's enforcer, relentless Davy Jones himself (Bill Nighy, still sprouting tentacles and face glop). By the time of the film's climactic fight, everyone left alive is being hurled around by a full-scale sea battle, waged in what seems a near-typhoon, with everyone slashing away like Errol Flynn on amphetamines.
As advertised, Rolling Stone Keith Richards shows up at a pirate conference as the keeper of the pirate code, even strumming a tune on a period guitar. (It wasn't "You Got the Silver" but then, he doesn't fall out of a coconut tree here either.)
The movie is almost too much. Director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer have packed "World's End" with so much explosive action, opulent decor and surreal scenes of mayhem and madness -- including a mass crab-and-ship exodus, an apocalyptic-looking waterfall and life-size and miniature hallucinatory clones of Capt. Jack, some capering around Depp's mane and shoulder -- that sometimes it's overwhelming. This sequel is frenziedly imaginative, where the first "Pirates" was sunny, fey and friendly (like Sparrow) and the second a rollicking romp.
"Dead Man's Chest" and "World's End" were conceived together by the original writers, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (who also co-wrote the first "Shrek"). But "Dead Man's Chest" is mostly buildup and "World's End" is mostly payoff. Fortunately, Depp is around to keep Capt. Jack and the movie subversively off-track and delightfully imaginative. The most characteristic scenes are not so much the ferocious sea battles but moments such as Capt. Jack's wordplay or the way Davy Jones uses a tentacle-tip to flick away a tear.
Verbinski is far more interested in acting and performance than most high-tech blockbuster-makers, and the supporting roles, especially by Rush, Chow, Nighy and Naomie Harris as Tia Dalma, give Depp a tasty backdrop.
What we love about pirate movies and myths, of course, is their mix of adventure, freedom and naughtiness, and Verbinski and Depp again capture all three. In the end, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," with its added doses of fantasy and even some piercing social comment (about Beckett and the government's rights-trampling tyranny), does its job. The movie -- extravagant, amusing and exciting -- may be only a ride, but it's a ride that dazzles.