In 1974, the world was a rosy place for Polish émigré director Roman Polanski. He’d just made Chinatown, merely one of the best movies of the decade (and a box-office hit to boot), and every studio in Hollywood was eager to finance his next project. He decided to mount a comedy-adventure called Pirates.
Jump to 1986. Polanski is continuing his exile from America, begun with his flight from a rape charge in 1977. He’s made only two films since Chinatown—The Tenant and Tess.
But some things stay the same; after 12 years of intermittent work, Pirates has finally arrived. You might think that such a long-cherished project would take the form of an ambitious work. But Pirates is more like an extended lark.
It’s a lavish period piece, set in the heyday of Caribbean piracy, all about the efforts of Captain Red (Walter Matthau) to acquire a priceless golden throne, which currently rests in the cargo hold of a Spanish galleon. Captain Red and his dutiful French sidekick, Frog (Cris Campion), first seen floating mid-ocean on a raft, are picked up by the galleon and given sundry work. But not for long.
They soon incite their fellow sailors to mutiny, taking the ship’s nasty leader (Damien Thomas) and his beautiful fiancée (Charlotte Lewis) hostage, and leading them to an outrageous pirates’ island, where the area’s buccaneers hold their conventions and cut out a hostage tongue or two.
There are some difficulties in securing the throne, which make up the last half of the film. The yarn itself is basic stuff; the colorful characters, the hinted love between Frog and the fiancée, the triumph of bad over evil.
It is certainly a frequently funny movie, although it’s not a parody of the genre (as some early reports suggested).
Walter Matthau, a peculiar choice for a swashbuckler (the role was originally written for Jack Nicholson), is actually very good. Matthau’s Cockney accent, pegleg, and matted mass of hair and beard create a full-blown impersonation of the crafty pirate. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is largely dull.
The best supporting performance is given by a dead rat, which Red and Frog are sentenced to eat as punishment. This bizarre, quite uproarious episode is exactly what the film needs more of.
Physically, it’s a superb production; the elaborate reproduction of the galleon (designed by Pierre Guffroy) is one of the most gorgeous boats in any movie. But despite some great sequences, a weird sense of irrelevance sets in about halfway through the movie. The level of inspiration decreases, and it’s tough to figure out why Polanski would nurture this idea for 12 years.
In its structure, and in many of its episodes, Pirates is perfectly in sync with Polanski’s absurdist view of the world as a place where greed and ambition are equally meaningless. But in itself, that is not quite enough to validate this entry in the career of a great director.
First published in the Herald, July 1986
This review is more positive than I remember the movie. Even imagining Nicholson in the role, it’s hard to see the film actually succeeding at whatever the hell Polanski meant it to be (some kind of cousin to Fearless Vampire Killers?).