I Review Dead People
Hello again, everyone, and welcome back to the column where some of the jokes are occasionally original. This week we take a look at two films celebrating the fact that death is no longer the career handicap it used to be, inasmuch as the title characters of both are - eek - of a distinctly cadaverous persuasion...
Ah, the buccaneering life! Is there anything more likely to set the heart a-quivering and the bladder a-quaking? A life on the ocean wave, regular plunder, and such interesting hats. Is it any surprise that one of my favourite daydreams involves me mustering my seamen and grabbing some booty? Well, anyway, for all the charm of being a corsair, for the last twenty or thirty years making a movie on this theme has been a surefire way of giving away all your money. This depressing trend has finally been reversed by Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, based on the Disney theme park ride of the same name. (Hopefully the success of this film means we can expect M Night Shymalan's Little Dipper - based on the Blackpool Pleasure Beach ride - in the not too distant future.)
A reassuringly old-fashioned swashbuckler, Pirates kicks off by introducing the inhabitants of the Caribbean outpost of Port Royal, primarily the overlooked blacksmith's apprentice Will (Elven poster-boy Orlando Bloom) and the girl he has a bit of a thing for, governor's daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightly, whom you may recall as a striker in Bend It Like Beckham or one of the Amidalettes in Phantom Menace). Inevitably, Elizabeth's father is not too keen on Will wooing her and is trying to set her up with a snooty English naval officer. Anyway, Elizabeth falls in the sea (quite why this happens isn't really gone into), which has an odd effect on her stylish Goth medallion, nicked from Will some years earlier while rescuing him from a shipwreck. Fortunately she is rescued by passing pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (an almost indescribably bizarre performance from Johnny Depp), who's in town trying to steal himself a ship. Unfortunately the medallion attracts the scurvy pirate swabs of Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), who have their own quite unusual reasons for wanting to get their hands on the medallion and its owner...
Well, this is a big, lavish, undeniably spectacular blockbuster, and you'd have to be a tiny bit shrivelled up inside not to find it at least a little agreeable. It has people walking the plank, it has a full-on sea battle between two sets of pirates, it has some very distinguished sword-fighting, and the special effects aren't bad either (although not up to the standard of the classic Ray Harryhausen sequences they're clearly a homage to). But these are not what make the film such fun.
What brings the film to life is Johnny Depp's extraordinary turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, a staggering, swaggering, addle-brained rogue who comes across as a strange hybrid of Gypsy fortune-teller and Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones. He really, really earns his fee, investing every line and movement with a knowingly peculiar twist of some kind, and he's by far the funniest lead character in a blockbuster for many years - big kudos to Depp for pulling it off, and much respect to the producers for letting him try in the first place. Best of all, it allows the rest of the film to engage in some very off-beat humour without it seeming out of place, and a supporting cast containing many familiar faces from British sitcoms (Mackenzie Crook, Kevin McNally, Jack Davenport) is ideally suited to this kind of material.
And to be honest this gives Pirates a mad energy and distinctiveness it sorely needs. This is a good script, and it's handsomely mounted, but Verbinski's direction is rather bland and uninspired (a few CGI shots notwithstanding). With a visionary like Terry Gilliam at the helm this could have been a hilarious, chilling classic - as it is, it's just a fun night out, a bit overlong, with romantic leads most notable for their good looks and rarely any sense of darkness or danger. Still, a distinctly superior adventure, and you're never in any doubt as to whom to thank for it.
The Satanic Vs
Of course, great screen performers often begin their careers in what would normally be considered quite unpromising places, and Johnny Depp is no different. His screen debut was, of course, in Wes Craven's original A Nightmare on Elm Street back in 1984... and just as Depp is still working, so the Nightmare franchise is still with us, in a manner of speaking: the latest development being Ronny Yu's long-promised Freddy Vs Jason - and just as one man could be both James I of England and James VI of Scotland, so this unpretentious little movie carries the burden of not only being A Nightmare on Elm Street 8, but also Friday the 13th Part Eleven.
Here's how it works: molten-faced dream-warping psychopath Freddy Krueger (as ever, a gleefully manic Robert Englund) is trapped in Hell, having lost his powers since everyone on Elm Street 'forgot' to be afraid of him (the police have engaged in some pretty Draconian information management - don't worry too much about the plausibility of this, it's not that kind of movie). However, he hits upon a cunning plan to restore his reputation after he encounters the indestructible machete-wielding juggernaut of bloody mayhem, Jason Voorhees (a mute stuntman), in a backwater of the Underworld. Impersonating Jason's beloved mum, Freddy packs the big guy off to Elm Street to put some scare back into the pert young teens of the neighbourhood (as one might have guessed from his appearances in nine other films, Jason is forever coming back from the dead).
What Freddy hasn't reckoned on is Jason's diligent single-mindedness: even after Freddy's powers have been restored, Jason just keeps on hacking apart those youngsters, cutting into Freddy's supply of victims. One of them has clearly got to go. So the stage is set for a truly epoch-defining clash of the horror icons - they're both evil, but who's the baddest of the bad?
I must confess to being a sucker for nearly any film with Vs in the title, and so I was rather looking forward to this even though I'm no particular fan of either the Nightmare or Friday franchises (next summer's Aliens Vs Predator will be much more my cup of tea, even if it is going to be directed by Paul 'Mr Turkey' Anderson). There are, of course, rules to this sort of thing, as established by many previous similar films and comic books - both combatants get to do their schtick individually for a while, thus showing off exactly what they can do before the actual bout gets underway. Back-story must be explained. The fight itself must be appropriately protracted and spectacular. And, as often as not, there'll be an indecisive ending where no-one actually wins.
Freddy Vs Jason mostly sticks to these rules, although most of the film takes place on Freddy's territory and refers to his continuity, only shifting to Jason's old Crystal Lake stomping ground near the end. For all this, though, it's Jason who's on more impressive form in the early part of the film, slicing and dicing in an old school style when he's not lurching out of a cornfield in full human torch mode to rip apart some unsuspecting ravers. Freddy doesn't really get to do much except mouth off (but then again, this is a plot point).
Obviously, everyone seeing this film has come for one reason only - to watch the two of them go head to head. Equally obviously, this can't happen until the climax. This gives the script some problems in terms of how to pass the time until then, and this is where Freddy Vs Jason falls down a bit. For some reason the writers have decided to include a couple of half-baked subplots, one about whether or not the mother of the heroine (Monica Keena, surprisingly good) was murdered by her father, and another about some teenagers escaping from a mental institution to warn their friends (including popstrel Kelly Rowland, surprisingly foul mouthed) about Freddy. At first I thought they were carrying on plot threads from the last Nightmare movie - but it seems they're not, they're just really badly written. Apart from this, continuity is kept, so far as I can tell - but it's not explained nearly enough. I suspect that, age-wise, I'm towards the top end of the target audience for this movie - yet I'm too young to have seen most of the Nightmare and Friday movies on their original releases, so this kind of assumption of knowledge by the writers is a mistake.
But all becomes a bit immaterial as soon as the two stars get to it. Now, being a taciturn, no-frills kinda guy myself, my sympathies were naturally with Jason (we have similar taste in clothes too): Freddy Krueger's homicidal tendencies don't rankle with me nearly as much as his total inability to keep his mouth shut. Above all, though, I wanted a good, dirty fight. And the film more or less delivers when it comes to the showdown (just as well, seeing as it's the movie's raison d'etre!) - it's not great, but it's good fun in a campy WWF sort of way. The film goes into comic strip action mode and what horror there is is of the gory rather than scary variety. Rather pleasingly, there is a proper victor at the end instead of the cop-out score draw I was half expecting - but then again, both these guys have come back from the dead so often that a rematch is entirely possible if the box office of this film is up to scratch. Presumably the next step will be monster tag wrestling - Freddy & Michael Myers Vs Jason & Candyman, anyone?
This isn't, let's be honest, a particularly good film - it's weakly scripted in all sorts of way, most of the teenage cast is never better than adequate, and it gets very dull and confused when Freddy and Jason aren't on the screen. But it does perk up when they're around, Yu's direction is lively and atmospheric, there's some inventive goriness, and it does score heavily on the novelty value front. Not up to the stratospherically high standard of Mothra Vs Godzilla (or even Godzilla Vs Mothra, for that matter), but a worthwhile addition to the Vs genre - like the rest of them, though, only really worth a look if you're already familiar with at least one of the characters.