Wicked Good 

“Pirates” charmingly details what gals have known for years — that given the right circumstances, Johnny Depp could be a theme park all by himself.

Depp’s performance in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” is a twitchy triumph, a swashbuckler’s master class. Every syllable he utters comes with an elegantly choreographed muscle spasm, as if his skin can’t quite contain the energy and verve within. As the dissolute pirate Jack Sparrow, he struts through the movie, cocking his head this way and that, using his eyebrows as punctuation and seeming thoroughly charmed and pleased with himself.

Looking for all the world like a rock star who’s addicted to self-tanning lotion and kohl eyeliner, Depp’s pirate Jack wants nothing more than to retrieve his trusty ship, stolen from him by a dastardly fellow pirate with otherworldly talents. Even Depp’s voice seems newly created for this role, issuing as it does from between gold-capped teeth. All slurred and whispery, it’s the voice of a man so confident he doesn’t care if anyone can hear him.

Amazingly, it’s this weirdly brilliant cross of Keith Richards and Capt. Hook that not only carries the movie but makes it so enjoyable. And trust me, this was not what I was expecting to find myself saying. Rest assured, despite first appearances, the notoriously independent Depp has not sold out. There’s nothing watered-down about his energy or performance here. In fact, director Gore Verbinski wisely backs off and lets Depp swagger.

Now there are some other people in the movie, not to mention a parrot and an extremely likable and talented monkey, though you’re not likely to notice them when Depp’s on screen. Oh my yes, any actor who can buck that age-old stage advice about not working with kids or animals, well, they are earning that paycheck. Depp is doubly impressive since this monkey isn’t merely precocious, he’s also sporting a costume just as dashing as Depp’s.

As a fellow pirate captain, Geoffrey Rush gives Depp a run for top-acting honors, snarling effectively and dragging out each of his vowels with a hiss worthy of any reptile. He’s the one who’s stolen Jack’s ship, the cursed Black Pearl. Keira Knightley (“Bend It Like Beckham”) and Orlando Bloom (Legolas in both “Lord of the Rings” movies) are pretty as pictures as the young couple at the heart of the adventure. We know they’re destined to be together. Why else would they have matching limpid brown eyes?

On the downside, “Pirates of the Caribbean” does have the feel of a theme-park ride, particularly the action scenes. While visually engaging, they do have a kind of time-tested, by-the-book feel, so much so that after five minutes you’ll half expect some pirate-garbed teenager to come unclasp your seat belt. And though ’tis a wee bit long (running well past the two-hour mark), “Pirates” has a cheeky sense of humor thanks to co-writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (who penned “Shrek”) and an easygoing touch. No deep messages here — just Depp, swashbuckling with the best of ’em. But be forewarned, he might just shiver ye timbers, ladies. ***1/2 S



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