Welcome to Part Two of The Polanski Challenge.
Wait. That doesn't sound very good at all. Let me explain. All this brouhaha over Polanski's current situation (and by the way, have you checked out that MTV thing Jersey Shore yet? And do you love The Situation?) got a friend of mine and I musing, "What about those couple of now-obscure Polanski movies that are supposed to be just the worst? Can they really be that bad?" And then, as if the Movie Gods had been listening in, solid releases of the self-same films appeared on Region 2 PAL foreign DVD. (Because they sure as shooting aren't gonna turn up in American editions anytime soon, lest a DVD manufacturer risk the wrath of, say, Pam "The Pam Meister" Meister.) Those titles were 1972's What?, and 1986's Pirates, both commercial disasters, the latter being a somewhat more cataclysmic one as it was a big-budget thing.
So. I watched and assessed What? nearly a month ago, and the experience was so traumatic that it's taken me this long to gin up my courage to get to Pirates. (And when I refer to trauma, I'm talking about watching the film itself, not the fact that my post about it inadvertently resulted in the creation of the Nathan Rabin Defense Fund, or something. That I could deal with, thanks.) Of course with What? it was my first, and likely last, time. I went into Pirates with a little more preparation I had first seen it, with the aforementioned friend, in its run at New York's gigantic Ziegfeld at its opening engagement in July of 1986. I remember that we were befuddled and disappointed by it. I remember that David Edelstein excoriated it in a Village Voice review, calling it an elaborate, budget-bloated remake of Polanski's early short Two Men And A Wardrobe, which Edelstein hadn't been crazy about the first time. I remember it sinking like a stone at the box office. I remember it contained a scene in which its two main characters were forced to eat rat, and that this scene was to have been a comic scene.
I remember correctly. The above screen capture depicts Walter Matthau as fearsome but funny (supposedly) pirate Captain Red and his young French cohort Jean-Baptiste, a.k.a. "The Frog," compelled to dine on rodent, lest their Spanish hosts are compelled to force them into an even more unpleasant situation. (They get to that anyway.) Pirates' scenario is a pretty simple one; the film opens with Red and Frog on a raft, about to die of starvation. They manage to sneak on to a Spanish ship, contrive a mutiny, seize and then attempt to sell off hostages; all the while Red is obsessed with the notion of absconding with a solid-gold throne he espies through a hole in the wall of the ship's brig. If you've seen Two Men And A Wardrobe you already have an idea of how it ends.
Now, we all know that humor is, as Kevin Smith once said to me "so fuckin' subjective." As it happens, I happened to find the scene in which Olu Jacobs' Boumako (the Spanish ship's disgraced cook who casts his lot with Red and Frog) frantically runs around town disguised as a nun to be pretty amusing. Maybe not in a laugh-out-loud way, but worth a chuckle.
And then there's the later scene in which Boumako tussles with a transparently fake anaconda, which he eventually shoots through the mouth. This was not terribly funny to me.
Then there's the scene in which Roy Kinnear's innkeeper negotiated with Matthau's Red. Kind of funny, largely because Kinnear's such a reliable comic actor. But then there's the rat-eating scene. Which is not funny, even in a gross-out way. I imagine it cracked up Polanski and his longtime collaborator Gérard Brach when they conceived it. But boy, does it not work. And this doesn't get the subjectivity clause as an out. Subjectivity doesn't cover really ineptly handled humor, and unfortunately, really ineptly handled humor makes up way too much of Pirates.
Some of the fault is Matthau's. I know; how can I say such a thing, the man was a genius, he could do no wrong. And as the screen caps tell you, he's makes those great Matthau faces just like he does in his other movies. Yes! He does! And his pratfalls aren't entirely bad, either. The problem is with his vocal performance. Not only can he not pick an accent and stick with it; he can't even pick a vocal range and stick with it. Sometimes he goes on like a Cockney castrato, other times like a London magistrate. It's commendable that Matthau wanted to make the effort and do an accent, but...he doesn't pull it off, and his lines go wildly off every 40 seconds or so. Polanski ought to have told him to just do the Matthau voice, putative verisimilitude be damned. Heck, it isn't as if the Spaniard characters speak Spanish.
There is sometimes enough other material here—stuff that speaks of Polanski's genuine affection for swashbuckling films—that you may temporarily forgive the broad slapstick, the silly faux-provocative sub-Python anti-clerical jokes, and various and sundry other irritants. The actual action sequences, as opposed to the slapstick ones, are uniformly well-shot and well choreographed...
...the female sort-of romantic interest, Charlotte Lewis, as a princess who's rescued from the hands of would-be rapists (I know, I know) by the brave and dashing Frog, is very appealing....
...and the cinematography, by the stalwart Witold Sobocinski, is never less than dazzling. And, oh, Phillipe Sarde's score is old-fashionedly rousing. And so on!
For all that, there are those who will argue that Pirates offers too much to forgive for any of its pleasures to really register. If you are interested in making your own decision on the matter, the recent French-issued DVD (the picture, largely produced in that country, won two Cesars and was actually something of a hit there) is very handsome indeed, although its French-language subtitles are not removable and its mostly-French extras are not subtitled in English.