Monday, July 10, 2006

Z Marks the Spot

I am a sucker for a good adventure. Ever since I can remember, that's been the kind of story that I respond to, the kind that pulls me and and won't let go. Perhaps it's the whole Star Wars-was-my-first-movie-experience thing. Or the Robert E. Howard's-Conan-novels-were-a-formative-influence business. (Really, they were. Never analyzed it all that much, but there are more than a few similarities between the Cimmerian's crude code of conduct—always keep your word, never put too much faith in gods, never hit a woman [unless she's actively trying to kill you, then all bets are off]—and the way I live my life.)

When I got older, I discovered Alexandre Dumas and The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Fell in with Jack London. Plumbed the depths of greek and norse mythology. Rode along with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Stumbled upon Ernest Shackleton's true tales of derring-do (and if you haven't read the Endurance saga, hie thee to a bookery). Hell, for a while there, I was even a Boy Scout...though adventure doesn't really come into play all that often, unless the adventure you're talking about is of the pyrotechnic/porn smuggling variety.

All of this is to say that one of my favorite movies of the last ten years is The Mask of Zorro. Honestly. It's a little lite, occasionally, but nevertheless, it completely holds together as both a romance and an adventure. And I credit the film's success entirely to Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Their script is a perfect tapestry of story points, character beats, and set pieces, all woven together in such a way that everything that happens on screen feels both surprising and inevitable. Yes, Antonio Banderas is all untamed swagger and Anthony Hopkins is gilded gravitas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, well, we all know what she is. But that movie works because the script is a finely-tooled dramatic machine.

And that's why I was so disappointed by Pirates of the Caribbean 2. Because the only thing that felt inevitable was the end...and it dragged on so long, that I even began to doubt that. And the leave-everything-unresolved cliffhanger didn't help: Movies should be done-in-one exercises or, if you need to serialize, do it in such a way that provides resolution but still leaves unanswered questions. (The paragon of this is The Empire Strikes Back. We know what happens to everyone by the end of the film. Sure, it's a downer, and that people still need rescuing, but Luke has faced Darth Vader and Han has faced his past demons. The promised confrontations happen.) But most filmmakers don't know how to serialize, don't know how to layer plot threads that can both sustain across the gulf of time and wrap up to offer the release you look for in an adventure.

Pirates 2 is an exercise is quantity: How much can we give you until you're satisfied? Doesn't matter if what we give you is any good, just tell us when you've had your fill. No wonder this is the land of competitive eating. The single most depressing thing about Pirates 2 is that it's gonna be the top-grossing film of the year, demonstrating to all in Hollywood that This Is How It Should Be Done. The second most depressing thing is that it was written by Elliott and Rossio, who've I've already declared my admiration for. I can only hope that they were Bruckheimered, forced to abandon that which they knew to be good and just in favor of the large and loud.

Pirates 1 was a happy accident, benefitting greatly from the energy that Johnny Depp put forth in stealing a movie out from under its stars as well as a well-told (but still a little indulgent) tale.

Pirates 2 is just an accident.


Reel Fanatic said...

I liked Pirates 2 quite a bit more than you did, though I agree it did go on for an awfully long time ... Really just wanted to say that I, too, just adore the Mask of Zorro

marc bernardin said...

It is just so good, isn't it? Reminds me a lot of The Princess Bride...but without Fred Savage.