Similar in tone to the first Star Wars prequel, Pirates of the Caribbean -- At World's End is more concerned with black flag politics than the actual buckling of any swash. Pointlessly long sequences feature lavish costumes, elaborate scenery and characters sitting around discussing who's back should be stabbed, and how. Only occasionally during this too-long (nearly three hours) misfire do the pirates come to their senses and raise scabbards like the buccaneers they are.
Such exposition might be warranted if Pirates offered anybody to root for, but established heroes are recast as selfish and nihilistic. Even Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the theoretical fair-haired hero of the piece, has become a schemer and secretive creep.
The Pirates franchise has always ridden on the shoulders of a schemer, Johnny Depp's inspired Capt. Jack Sparrow. Unfortunately, it is in the handling of this character that the film really loses the thread. Now little more than a support act -- even the once-dead Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has a higher profile -- Capt. Jack appears from time to time to provide comic relief or expound on a plot point, but his presence usually seems an afterthought.
When the film does revert to the stirring sea battles and carefully choreographed sword fights that made the first film such an unexpected pleasure, it works well. A cannon-blasting chess match in the swirl of a mystical vortex, in particular, is viscerally thrilling. But these moments are too few to save Pirates from running aground.
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WHAT: Pirates of the Caribbean -- At World's End (Walt Disney Pictures; $34.99)
VERTDICT: ** out of *****
DVD EXTRAS: The most appealing is a conversation with Johnny Depp and rocker Keith Richards, who inspired the character of Jack Sparrow and appears in At World's End.