Well, now that I trust the Batgirl cover controversy is squared away I can safely defend an underrated Roman Polanski film. Though 1986's Pirates is not a great film and its defects are the sort particularly problematic for its 40 million dollar budget. It lacks the energy and innocence generally necessary for a blockbuster. But to those of us who enjoy great period costumes and set design and unlikely good casting, and to those of us who liked Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, there's a lot to like here.
An entire Spanish galleon was built for the film which is set in the late seventeenth century, somewhere at sea. It begins with Captain Red (Walter Matthau) and his lieutenant, Jean-Baptiste (Cris Campion), stranded on what very little remains of their ship.
Many critics derided the choice of Matthau for the archetypal pirate captain role but I found him surprisingly perfect despite his imperfect cockney accent. Who better than Matthau to make callousness so charming? We find him explaining to Jean-Baptiste that he needn't worry about the sin of cannibalising his young companion because that's "what confession is for."
The first half of the film has a subtle recurring theme of religious hypocrisy. Red and Jean-Baptiste are taken captive aboard a Spanish galleon under the command of the sadistic Don Alfonso de Salamanca de la Torre (Damien Thomas) who's backed up by a vacillating Catholic priest.
In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Don Alfonso forces Red and Jean-Baptiste to eat a rat after they've attempted to start a mutiny. It seems slightly out of place with the rest of the film with its portrayal of cruelty that feels credible in a way that reminds you Polanski knows what he's talking about.
There is a sense of two Polanskis at odds. The relationship of Red and Jean-Baptiste recalls the central characters of the parody film The Fearless Vampire Killers and yet, by virtue of the production design and some of the more insightful moments, it seems the Polanski of Repulsion and Chinatown is also present. Those of us seeking the latter will feel a little impatient with some of the film's broader comedic moments--particularly one involving a very fake looking python--and the unsuccessful, robust score by Philippe Sarde that attempts to pay homage to Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Those who seek a lighter comedy adventure film would likely be put off by the more grim aspects. Which you might think is a funny thing to say in this age of Game of Thrones. But this gives me another moment to comment Game of Thrones, as much as I like it, isn't the hardcore, realistic portrayal of human behaviour people claim it is. But that's another kettle of fish.
For me, the visuals and Matthau's performance were enough. But this could have been a much greater film.
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