Polanski! Matthau! Pirates! What could go wrong? Plenty, as it turned out. Pirates (1986) is one of Roman Polanski’s least regarded and least seen films–I had to watch it on old video tape–and a big enough fiasco to warrant inclusion in Time Out London’s recent “Flops! Follies! Failures! Cinema’s 50 Greatest Disasters!” It had a large budget, much of it spent on a life-size recreation of a Spanish galleon, and made very little money. Somehow it played at Cannes that year.
The ’80s were not kind to the maverick auteurs who had dominated the ’70s and it seems like a rite of passage for many of them to have a prominent flop like Heaven’s Gate or One From the Heart One school of thought–exemplified by author Peter Biskind–holds that the Spielberg/Lucas summer blockbuster crowd ruined everything for edgy, artistic, ambiguous films, but maybe these revered directors just made some shitty films in the ’80s. Like peers Peter Bogdanovich and Robert Altman, Polanski floundered during that decade. He closed the ’70s with a long, slow adaptation of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, starring a young Nastassja Kinski, and his only ’80s films were Pirates and the listless Hitchockian thriller Frantic. Pirates was originally conceived around the time of Chinatown, with Jack Nicholson to star. As Martin Scorsese learned with Gangs of New York, when a project takes so long to realize, maybe it’s best to let it be. Clearly Polanski and the producers weren’t paying attention to current events as it wasn’t even the only failed pirates movie of the decade; both Yellowbeard and The Pirate Movie had already flopped.
Pirates opens with the old Cannon Films logo and a close-up of the Jolly Roger; a rousing score lets us know that we’re in for a good time. Would that were true. We join Walter Matthau’s Captain Red and his young, French lackey Frog (Cris Campion) on a ramshackle raft, being circled by a shark. Matthau eats a live fish that Frog catches and then, briefly delusional, tries to eat his shipmate. Even this early on, the movie is dumb and pointless, which may be the best thing about it; that is, it never fools you into thinking it’s going to be good, although Dead in the Water might have been a more honest title.
From there, the muddled, turgid narrative takes the odd couple to the Spanish galleon Neptune, where they are conscripted into service by the foppish, bewigged Spaniards, forced to eat rat, befriend the crew and spy the lovely governor’s daughter (Charlotte Lewis). If you remember Lewis at all it may be from Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child. The box copy even makes this a selling point: “Soon to be seen as Eddie Murphy’s co-star in the Golden Child.” Lewis is pretty and seems to rouse Polanski’s interests, at least enough to light her cleavage well; she seem to come from the “look pretty and don’t change expression” school of acting. There’s a half-hearted romance between her and Frog and he saves her twice from horny pirates. Not to bring Polanski’s personal life into play, but you have to wonder if two attempted rape scenes, both handled a little comically, was such a good idea. It certainly hasn’t helped the film’s dismal reputation that Lewis recently accused Polanski of inappropriate behavior when she was auditioning for the film (she was 16 years old at the time).
I kept waiting for the plot to pick up, but it never really does. There’s some kind of half-assed attempt to complicate things with a gold Aztec throne (or something), Matthau leads a mutiny and they land at his pirate base, where he reconnects with his band of grotesque, half-witted pirate buddies. The Spaniards escape, retake the ship, Matthau and crew have to get it back, they get imprisoned–it’s all very tedious and very bad. It’s not so much an adventure as a riotously expensive and brutally unfunny slapstick movie, replete with all manner of injuries, falls, mishaps and medical comedy (gout, enemas). Matthau even gets his peg leg stuck and his to hack part of it off to escape!
I like Matthau, but he makes for an unlikely and unconvincing pirate; he’s much more Long John Silver (or Oscar Madison) than Captain Blood. His familiar gruff voice continually punctures his attempts at a Cockney accent, an attempt that falls just shy of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins for atrociousness. Sometimes he looks more like a grizzled Grateful Dead roadie than a pirate, not so much swashbuckling as cranky. You can’t blame him for how bad it is, but he seems just as lost as the movie. There are some boring fights before it finally sputters out, feeling much longer than its two-hour running time, with Red and Frog where they began, on a raft in the middle of the ocean. It reminds the audience that they too have gone nowhere and they will never get these two hours back. Thanks a lot, Polanski.
Hardcore auteur theorists will insist that you can find a director’s fingerprints and personality in even the most mediocre and undistinguished of their work, but you’d be hard pressed to find any traces of the man who made Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion here. Pirates may be both the worst and the most anonymous film in Polanski’s canon. It’s the rare movie that makes you really wonder how anybody involved with this could think it was anything but crap. It’s really that bad: a bloated, brainless, witless wreck of a film.
by Lukas Sherman