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MOVIE REVIEW

'Caribbean' queen

Keira Knightley takes the helm in the swirl of 'Pirates' sequel

There are too many Johnny Depps in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End " and much more Keira Knightley than you were expecting -- so much so that the actress becomes the movie's indisputable star. If this still isn't quite what it takes to strike pirate gold, it sails a lot closer to the wind than last time.

But you want to know about Jack Sparrow, don't you? One half hour into this immense, thundering cinematic knick-knack, just when we're beginning to wonder if anything's going to actually happen, director Gore Verbinski finally cuts to the good captain. Jack and his ship, the Black Pearl , are marooned in Davy Jones' s Locker , which is, against all expectations, an endless desert.

He has manned the Pearl with dozens of clones of himself, infinitely disposable and mutinously muttering; these turn out to be hallucinations. In the surrounding waste are thousands of small rocks that sprout claws and scuttle sideways; these turn out to be real.

It's a marvelous sequence, nearer to genuine surrealism than anything in the previous "Pirates" or available in other blockbusters this summer, and it underscores what's special about this franchise: damn- the-torpedoes excess, larded on by producer Jerry Bruckheimer without a care for expense or even common sense. These movies go too far -- visually, narratively, abaft and abeam -- and still the filmmakers keep going, headed for the waterfall of spectacle run amok.

If the previous installment, "Dead Man's Chest, " was a classic No. 2, antic and insultingly unresolved, "World's End" tips the ship too far in the opposite direction. The first two hours of this 168-minute leviathan are bafflingly action-free, with more care given to figuring out who in the massive cast is where -- and how, and why -- than is necessary. Where's the parodic spirit of the first "Pirates," a movie that made theme-park cinema seem like a good idea?

"World's End," by contrast, opens with a mass hanging. Pass the popcorn. The going gets grimmer, too, before the movie pops buoyantly back to the surface in its mid-section. Because Verbinski and company have boxed themselves in with so many plot threads, they're forced to direct traffic instead of buckling swashes, and it hurts. Only one actor manages to rise through the flotsam.

Surprise: It's Knightley. Her character, Elizabeth Swann , started the series as a winsome maiden in distress and has only gotten leaner and meaner. In "World's End," the actress looks positively feral as Elizabeth at last assumes the aspect of classic female pirates of yo-ho-ho yore, rising to prominence in battle and barking out orders to make a bos'n quail. She could be Anne Bonney or Mary Reade -- all right, if they had been supermodels -- and the movie plops a Chinese corsair's hat on her head and stands back in unalloyed admiration.

I could tell you what happens in "POTC: At World's End," but Disney made me swear not to (really: a corporate document was handed out at press screenings urging critics and bloggers to avoid plot spoilage). More to the point, no synopsis would make a lick of sense. Here goes, anyway: The horrid Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander ), foppish representative of the East India Company , has joined forces with Davy Jones (Bill Nighy , under a wriggling mass of CGI tentacles) to obliterate the pirates of the seven seas.

Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush , still giving great Long John Silver) wants to convene the Brethren Court -- the nine pirate lords of the globe -- to fight the enemy by unleashing the water goddess Calypso (technically a sea-nymph, but never mind). Elizabeth, by now on equal footing with the buccaneers, would rather make a last stand at sea.

Jack Sparrow, one of those lords despite appearances to the contrary, needs rescuing from the arid wastes of the Locker, and the journey there and back by the other major characters is the focus of the movie's first half. This is capped by a remarkable scene in which the world turns upside down and sunset becomes sunrise; that and the multi-Depp scene mentioned above are the best moments in all of "World's End" (except for a blithe bit of ceremony in the midst of intense action toward the end -- but I can say no more).

Chow Yun-Fat shows up as the sneering Singapore pirate lord Sao Feng , but Verbinski is never sure what to do with the character and the movie drifts close to yellow-peril cliche when he lusts after Elizabeth. While never as purposelessly cluttered as "Dead Man's Chest," "World's End" still has too many marbles rolling on the deck: Elizabeth's one-time fiance, Admiral Norrington (Jack Davenport ), trying to decide whether he's a good bad-guy or a bad good-guy; Stellan Skarsgard as Bootstrap Bill Turner , touchingly senile under his cursed crust of seashells; Naomie Harris as the voodoo-spewing Tia Dalma ; Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook as the comic crewmen who are this series' R2-D2 and C-3PO .

They all criss-cross, double-cross, and quadruple-cross each other, and poor Orlando Bloom as Will Turner gets swept to sea with the backwash. The actor's not at fault; the writers just haven't given Will enough to do, so busy are they putting the pirate pants on Elizabeth. Notice I'm not complaining.

Depp, too, is pushed slightly into the background, where he prances engagingly. Jack's less of a wobbly cartoon in this one, and when Keith Richards appears out of nowhere as Captain Teague , a sweetly ridiculous father-son reunion ensues. Richards doesn't even have to act -- his fake nose does it for him -- and when he counsels Jack that the important thing in life is just to survive, a "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie backs into the real world for the first and only time. (Spin off, please.)

Thus while the tenderhearted may mourn the passing of a few of the characters, the truth is such fatalities don't really hurt. The writers can always provide an out if it's a major figure, and anyway, what's death in these movies but a momentary setback?

After several hours of noise, exposition, and a brief detour into "The Attack of the 50-Foot Obeah Woman," "World's End" erupts in a highly satisfying battle between the Black Pearl and Davy Jones' s Flying Dutchman . The two ships swirl around a maelstrom -- it's like they're going down a giant toilet, but the movie doesn't go with them. Rather, it pays off with all the high-tech sound and fury this series has promised and not delivered often enough. Confusing and exhilarating, violent and weirdly bloodless, the sequence is modern Xbox filmmaking at its finest.

Then it's over and you realize there's still another 20 minutes and one more gargantuan battle to go. "The problem with being the last of something is that there's no coming back," says Barbossa at one point, pointedly ignoring recent Hollywood history. You can bet your parrot "Pirates" will be back, even if "At World's End" hasn't the foggiest idea when to quit.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

'Related'

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Directed by: Gore Verbinski

Written by: Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio

Starring: Johnny Depp , Keira Knightley , Orlando Bloom , Geoffrey Rush , Chow Yun-Fat , Bill Nighy , Stellan Skarsgard , Keith Richards

At: Opens Friday at Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; previews tomorrow at select theaters

Running time: 168 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (intense sequences of action/adventure violence and some frightening images)

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