Look at the pedigree: Roman Polanski, disgraced and exiled director of several fantastic films (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, Tess); Walter Matthau, an actor of such tremendous talent that he still qualifies as underrated despite three Oscar nominations and one win; and Tarak Ben Ammar, whose involvement as producer and/or financier of European films (most notably Life of Brian Franco Zefferelli’s La Traviata) lend him credibility despite his not being a household name.
Cannon brought these people together in a CAA-like package. After years of mockery from critics over their oeuvre—which, to that point, consisted largely of sequels, ultraviolent action movies, and crass attempts to cash in on fads (like break–dancing)—Cannon sought out prestigious yet down-on-their-luck filmmakers and actors to make a better class of film for them. For well-publicized reasons, Polanski hadn’t directed a film since Tess in 1979. After an almost nonstop series of hits during the first half of the ’70s, Matthau starred in an unfortunate string of flops. Cannon pounced, and Pirates happened.
What an ill-conceived mess of a film. Its opening sets a tone of depravity that the rest of the movie gleefully embraces: Captain Red (Matthau), a Cockney pirate with a huge black beard and a surprisingly convincing peg leg, is stuck on a leaky raft with his French manservant, Jean-Baptiste (Cris Campion). Jean-Baptiste fishes off the side of the raft, but all he can catch is a tiny minnow. Red is so hungry, he grabs the minnow and swallows it, even though it’s still on the fishhook, which gets stuck in his throat. Red yanks on the fishing line twice, but the hook remains stuck, so he slices the line with his sword and swallows it. This is played for laughs, but all it made me do was clutch my own throat, somewhat nauseated as my mind tried to simulate what it might feel like to yank on a fishhook caught in my throat. More attempts at laughs follow: not satiated, Red immediately lunges at his servant, attempts to bite him in the ass, and when Jean-Baptiste climbs the mast to get away from him, Red starts to chop it down with his sword, all the while explaining why it would be honorable for Jean-Baptiste to let Red eat him.
The possibility for laughs exist in these bizarre bits of business, but laughter never comes. This long opening scene exists solely to introduce Red as a comically unpleasant, gold-obsessed monster. I give Polanski some credit for never trying to redeem this character’s faults, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed spending time with Red or any other character in this film.
Immediately after this opening scene, Red and Jean-Baptiste sneak onto a Spanish galleon and get caught and forced into slavery. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around Red’s quest to steal a solid-gold Aztec throne from the ship, but the film gets distracted from that storyline with many other swashbuckling clichés: Red leads a mutiny, Jean-Baptiste falls in love with a beautiful aristocrat (Charlotte Lewis), Red attempts to ransom the aristocrat to her father (and when he won’t pay, Red instructs Jean-Baptiste to rape her in front of him), for some reason Red travels to a tropical island where he owes many people money, and so on.
The depravity continues in moments like the extended, graphic scene in which their captor, Don Alfonso (Damien Thomas), forces Red and Jean-Baptiste to eat a raw rat. Also, this movie has roughly as much rape-based humor as Yellowbeard (another awful pirate comedy), which is especially uncomfortable in light of Polanski’s sordid personal life. The humor relies far too much on gross-out gags, but those gags make the Farrelly Brothers look like Frank Capra. The miscalculation is surprising, because although Polanski is not known as a comedy director, he made at least one great one (1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers) and peppered most of his other films with an undeniable wit. Matthau does his best to mine laughs from the awful material, but he has so little to work with, his performance frequently comes off as desperate. It’s sort of sad to watch.
The movie doesn’t really work as a rollicking pirate adventure, either. Polanski does focus on some of the details of pirate life (such as Red bartering to get a fellow slave to carve him a new peg leg), but overall, it just mines too many clichés and has too little narrative focus to work as either a satisfying homage to classic pirate fare or a cautionary tale tearing down the pirate mythos. Any attempt to understand why the script is so scattershot would require more conjecture than I’m willing to put forth in a review. What matters is the fact that the story simply doesn’t work.
All of this is hugely disappointing in light of how good Pirates looks. The ship, a full-scale recreation (with a modern engine), is gorgeous, and the costumes alone do a great job of separating the disgusting pirate slaves from the well-kept Spaniards. The panoramic cinematography shows off the overall beauty of the sea and scenery (filmed in Malta and Tunisia). If nothing else, production designer Pierre Guffroy, costumer Anthony Powell, and cinematographer Witold Sobocinski should be commended. They managed to make a horrible movie look better than it should, and better than most cheap Cannon fodder. They’re the sole reason this movie didn’t get a shameful zero-star rating.
Pirates is a terrible film, lacking both the goofy charm of typical Cannon films and the high quality one expects from a Polanski film (assuming one hasn’t seen The Tenant or The Ninth Gate). The frustrating combination of incoherent storytelling and epically unfunny comedy obliterate a movie that had a great deal of potential.