The Sparrow and the Swann

A quirky love of language and substantial sense of fun bring Captain Jack ' and the entire Pirates trilogy ' back to life.

There are moments when Captain Jack Sparrow seems like a comedic character cut from Shakespearean cloth. There's his interesting relationship to words, his fancy philosophizing, his screwy world view. Never your typical summer-action-movie hero (or anti-hero), Sparrow always flies in a chaos he creates but rarely understands. He's a shallow man, swimming in deep waters. He's a deep troublemaker, playing in the shallows of human folly. He's an idiot, but at least he's an idiot telling a sound-and-fury-filled tale that signifies significantly more than nothing. For two of the three Pirates films ' the first and this last one, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End ' his tale-telling has signified an unusually smart and cynical shade of summer fun.

So scratch that: He's not straight-up Shakespearean, more like a character reimagined, turned inside out, a la Tom Stoppard. Johnny Depp might have crafted his pirate persona with Keith Richards in mind, but he (and screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio) came up with a buccaneer who quite frequently seems as though he'd be right at home in the absurdist, bumbling afterworld of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. It's like Sparrow is out of Bizarro World Shakespeare, and it's as strange to write that as it must be to read it.

And yet, it's truth, or something very much like it. The beauty of the captain's character got largely lost in the execrable excesses of the second film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, but Jack is decidedly back in At World's End. This final (?) piece of the Pirates trilogy places Jack not at world's end, actually, but at world's center, precisely where he belongs.

Killed by the Kraken (and Elizabeth's treacherous kiss) at the end of Dead Man's Chest, Sparrow sits in the great beyond, his particular hell a twist on the Sartrean definition. In Jack's case, hell is not other people; hell is himself. Lots of himselves actually and a ship wrecked in the middle of a desert. But as usual, events he set in motion in the living world long ago are racing to conclusion, an ending that requires his retrieval from the wasteland he finds himself wandering. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), Will (Orlando Bloom) and Tia (Naomie Harris) travel off the map to bring him back ' all for their own reasons, each of which is often in direct collision with everyone else's. Guilt, greed and love hide amongst all that glorious guile. Ah, the pirate's life for me!

At the same time, the days of the free seas are numbered; evil bureaucrat Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) now controls the heart of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and aims to use it to wipe out those pesky pirates once and for all, forcing a showdown involving the nine Pirate Lords (who include Chow-Yun Fat's Singaporean Sao Feng), the sea goddess Calypso and ' of course ' our twittering Sparrow trying to skew things his way, his quest for immortality undimmed by his recent bout with, well, his own mortality.

The strength of At World's End is not ' and yet sort of is ' in its narrative force. Doublecrossers are doublecrossed, and loyalties are as tricky to trace as the winds themselves. All of which makes the story at times hard to follow, but is unfailingly true to pirate form and makes for great fun in all the twists and turns. Straightforward these swashbucklers are not. When one British bad guy wonders if Jack plans it all out ahead of time or just makes it up on the fly, he's cutting to the heart of At World's End, for this film, more so than its predecessors, fits itself to the contours of its exhilarating, infuriating protagonist. Audiences are left to ride the waves and enjoy the storm-tossed journey. This carefree chaos admittedly leaves for some open-ended story lines, but why would anyone want (or expect) anything different from our friend, Captain Jack? This is his world, and "structure" is a four-letter word.

After all, there is other, lovelier language to be commanded. Together, writers Elliot and Rossio have always showcased a quirky love of language that very nearly carries these films on its own. Most comes from Sparrow's mouth, but not all. The title Dead Man's Chest, after all, is one delicious double meaning that almost justifies the bloated film's existence. World's End is just as witty ' take, for example, the semantic shenanigans of making "nine pieces of eight" a major, oft-repeated plot point. And then there's Jack, alternately asking if he may take a machete to someone else's "intellectual thicket," artfully mangling the Bard's "hell-hath-no-fury" observation, and lecturing port town tarts on the correct pronunciation of "egregious." It's impossible not to be charmed.

It's all summer fluff, but at least it is fluff with flair, the kind of flair that follows Jack Sparrow wherever he may go. That's At World's End, but it's certainly not the end of the world.