Johnny Depp plays the kohl-eyed, gypsy-bedecked pirate Jack Sparrow, who has been reduced in recent years to a more ragtag persona than the legend perceives himself to be. When a British Navy commander notes dismissively, "You're the worst pirate I've ever heard of," Sparrow takes pride in a misinterpreted conclusion, slurring in a winsomely sun-touched or rum-tainted North London accent: "But you have heard of me." The off-kilter but magnetic Sparrow, it is revealed, was formerly the captain of the Black Pearl, a pirate ship commandeered by the crew in a mutiny led by the coolly menacing Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Sparrow was ousted just in time, however, as his former shipmates' next haul included some bewitched Aztec coins that damned them to eternal torment as skeletal zombies unable to be satiated by life's pleasures. (Seemingly flesh-and-blood men during the day, their ghoulish appearance is revealed only in moonlight--a plot point director Gore Verbinski has fun with during a fight scene in a craggy cavern riddled with shafts of lunar lumination.) But apparently this horrifying fate is not enough of a comeuppance in Jack's escapade-addled but still cunning mind, and he's out for revenge.
Facilitating his plan is Elizabeth Swann ("Bend it Like Beckham's" Keira Knightley), an adventurous young noblewoman kidnapped by Barbossa, and Will Turner ("Lord of the Rings'" Orlando Bloom), a virtuous blacksmith who's not-so-secretly in love with Elizabeth and is determined to save her. Despite a deep-seated loathing of pirates tying in to his father's mysterious demise, Will teams up with Sparrow to pursue the preternatural picaroons.
As the unlikely duo get to know each other, Sparrow jokes more than once that the overly restrained Will (who channels his unspoken passion into swordplay) is a eunuch, but it's the movie itself that's been castrated. The smolderingly attractive leads should generate pyrotechnic sparks, but such possibilities are doused by the bucket of ice-cold seawater that is "Pirates of the Caribbean's" thuddingly chaste approach to romance: Even the bodice-ripping (well, corset-slicing) is designed for laughs, not lust. A largely comic approach makes the film more family-friendly, but at the expense of the dashing supernatural swashbuckler it could have been. Yet the filmmakers pulled few punches with the violence: Throats are cut, torsos sliced and blades buried into backs when euphemized grappling and brawling would have sufficed, given the otherwise mild tone.
Still, all parties are game, the humor is wry, and there are sights one will never see anywhere else, such as gormless Gareth from British TV's "The Office" as a bloodthirsty cadaver in a dress clutching a parasol while scrambling down a ship's deck after his errant glass eye. Most compellingly, Depp casts a spell every bit as powerful as any demonic bullion. Starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley and Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. A Buena Vista release. Action/Comedy. Rated PG-13 for action/adventure violence. Running time: 143 min