Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986) – A Review
Whoa. Roman Polanski’s Pirates! I recall when it first came out reading about it and not finding any positive reviews for it. It took quite the lashing from critics. It quickly became a member of the notorious family of big box office disasters after having cost around $40 million bucks and grossing about $7 million worldwide.
That’s pretty bad. It’s not surprising we didn’t see many pirate movies being made in its wake.
I eventually watched a few minutes of it when it showed up on cable soon after it disappeared from theaters. But I had never watched the whole thing. Now that I have, I regret not quitting while I was ahead. Sometimes you should just go with your gut.
In 1986 Roman Polanski got to film a project that he had been dreaming of for over a decade. A pirate movie that would be his homage to the old swashbuckling adventures that he enjoyed as a boy. The lavish production would create a full scale galleon that would be the centerpiece of the story.
It sounds like it could be a cool idea. Unfortunately it wasn’t. Really, it wasn’t.
Walter Matthau is the peg-legged, filthy Captain Red. Hopelessly adrift at sea with his first mate Frog (Cris Campion) it looks like to be the end for them until they happen upon a Spanish galleon.
After being enslaved by the Spaniards and forced to wash the decks, they create a mutiny with Red seizing control of the ship with his eyes on taking the Spanish treasure onboard, specifically a solid gold Aztec throne. Meanwhile Frog falls for the niece (Charlotte Lewis) of a Spanish governor.
The pair recruit even more pirates from Red’s past before the ship is overtaken by the Spaniards. This leads to an all out battle for the ship and the treasures inside.
This story sounds a little slim doesn’t it? Well, that’s exactly what it is – slim. There’s really nothing going on. It starts with an intriguing setup as Red and Frog are seemingly doomed (I suspect after one heck of a pirate-ty adventure) and they manage to board that passing Spaniard ship.
They’re shackled and forced to work. Red spots the mountain of treasure stored in the ships hull and his eyes widen. From there on the film just kind of floats along headed in no clear direction like the two castaways in the middle of the ocean.
There’s very little that works here. All the supposed drama, action and comedy falls immediately overboard faster than an anchor and you’re just left there staring at the screen feeling no emotion. Things bounce all over the place to heavy dramatic battles to embarrassing romance to downright silliness.
The story as I said goes nowhere. It should be fairly simple to follow – everyone wants this Aztec throne and they’re willing to do anything to get their hands on it. But the movie becomes so convoluted with confusing detours that key motivation of the pirates and Spaniards gets lost.
Throughout the film I was never engaged or interested in seeing where this adventure would be headed. Instead it becomes a series of scenes that follow one another that never build to anything.
Other than Matthau, the cast has very little to do or get to bring to life any memorable characters.
Campion is meant to be the young dashing hero with his budding romance with Lewis. However, neither of them create any sparks and their relationship is written in the most broad boring cinematic strokes. It’s mainly them making googly eyes at each other and both are completely forgettable in this.
Other than Lewis appearing in The Golden Child soon after this I’ve never seen any other work either of them has done. So I’m guessing their participation in Pirates didn’t help their careers much.
Damian Thomas is the Spanish villain and again is given very little to do other than recite clichéd bad guy dialogue. I can’t recall anything about any of the supporting parts or pirates. Everyone just seems to blend into the background and are there to encircle Matthau and Thomas as they give speeches.
Matthau’s miscasting here as Captain Red has gotten a lot of heat, probably the most picked on part of this movie. It’s interesting to think what Pirateswould have been like had Polanski gotten Jack Nicholson for the role as he originally intended. That might have been pretty cool seeing what Nicholson would have done with playing a nasty pirate.
Instead Matthau fluctuates between doing comedic slapstick, acting cruelly nefarious to downright disgusting. And none of what he does here makes me enjoy spending time with him. I wouldn’t even mind his often criticized accent had he been a fun, greedy rapscallion who I was amused to watch.
One positive I can say about Matthau is his peg-leg. They managed to make his wooden leg look pretty convincing and successfully hid Matthau’s real one under his clothes. They pulled that off pretty good at least.
I haven’t seen all of Polanski’s films, but Pirates has to be one of the worst, if nottheworst on his resume. Even while watching Pirates I didn’t feel there was any passion behind it. There was nothing notable in it that made me think this was a dream project that a talented filmmaker has finally gotten a chance to make and he’s really putting his all into it. That he was excited to be trying something different and really spent a lot of time thinking about all of this.
I was just left thinking, “why did they waste their time making this? Did they really think this was good? What was the point?”
The only other positive thing that I can say about Pirates (other than Matthau’s peg-leg – not exactly a quote-worthy blurb to be used on the movie poster) is after all the money they spent on the galleon it did pay off and it does looks pretty impressive. Seeing it in wideshots I kept imagining what a wonderful floating set it would be to set an entertaining movie on. Pirates isn’t it though.
‘The Neptune’ is now docked in Italy and open for tours. And I’m betting strolling around its decks is more interesting and entertaining than having to see it in this movie.