Hollywood has never met a genre it couldn’t milk dry. Strange, then, that despite the billions of dollars that the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have made, we were never awash in a deluge of cheap knock-offs. Sad, because problematic actors aside, I love a good goofy swashbuckling yarn.
Thankfully, South Korea isn’t as gunshy as we are. Kim Jeong-hoon’s The Pirates: The Last of the Royal Treasure is a light-hearted adventure that scratches that very particular itch. A spiritual sequel to the 2014 film The Pirates, Kim’s entry tosses logic off the starboard side and sails heedlessly into the winds of pulpish tales with giant whales, dragons made of fire, lost treasures, and hidden islands.
Chun Sung-il’s script is, at first blush, a little scatterbrained. That is until you step back and see the method to his madness. The structure of Chun’s script weaves together a series of min-adventures, one leading into the other, giving the feeling of a journey with each quest and encounter building to the final goal of the hidden treasure.
As usual, with these types of stories, multiple groups of people chase after the buried treasure. Alliances shift with every scene change as the characters engage in a barrage of chicaneries. Woo Moo-chi (Kang Ha-neul), the dashing scoundrel and leader of a gang of bandits stranded in the middle of the ocean, is one such example. And where there’s a scoundrel, there’s a gorgeous and competent woman for him to fall in love with. In this case, the captain of the pirate ship Hae-rang (Han Hyo-joo), rescues Moo-chi and his fellow bandits.
Other shifty characters include the rebel leader Bu Heung-soo (Kwon Sang-woo), the true villain. Unlike the pirates, Heung-soo is a man without honor, principles, or anything other than greed. Oh, and then there’s the comic relief character Mak-yi (Lee Kwang-soo), a man who won’t hesitate to double-cross a friend if it means getting to the treasure first.
Lee’s Mak-yi is a scheming cheat with a conscience as long as there’s a cutlass to his throat. He doesn’t have a heart of gold because he would have sold it off long ago if there were any gold in it. Of all the characters, Lee’s is the broadest, but he has the most backstory.
Consequently, his Mak-yi has the most pathos. Yet, there’s not an ounce of suave or cool in his bones. Instead, he’s a boorish loudmouth whose ego is only outsized by his sense of self-preservation. Lee pulls off a nifty hat-trick of being lovable while never doing anything we could love him for. He’s a whiny loser without integrity, and you can’t take your eyes off him.
But the thrust of The Pirates is the will they/won’t they (they totally will) between Kang’s Moo-chi and Han’s Hae-rang. The two leads have a chemistry of a kind, but not the sort that left me rooting for them. However, I’m unsure if Kim and Chun want us to. The two characters are equally stubborn and arrogant, though Han’s Hae-rang is infinitely likable simply because she is shown to care for her crew and comes across as cool under pressure.
Kang’s Moo-chi is your stereotypical hothead who will rush into a cave to kill a cow for food, not realizing that he’s running into a stampede. On the other hand, Hae-rang stands back, observes the world around her, and can only shake her head as Moo-chi once again rushes into action without much thought. In a way, it’s almost impressive how nothing gets done when these two work together.
It’s a type of romance that’s hard to do, where the characters like each other but can’t stand each other, even though they complement each other perfectly. Chun’s script is chock full of moments where either Moo-chi or Hae-rang is caught mooning over the other, only to have the sweet moment burst into an argument when one of them speaks.
Moo-chi and Hae-rang are the heart of Kim’s The Pirates. The boisterous action scenes, mystical and natural wonders, and the friends we make along the way keep the heart pumping.
Kim keeps the mood light, with the stakes never being all that dire. Light-hearted and entertaining, The Pirates is a movie that I watched with a silly grin on my face, for the most part. Sometimes the special effects get a little rickety, while at others, I shook my head in disgust; I could have done without the scene with the penguin pooping on a character’s face.
But those are minor quibbles. Shin Tae-ho and Kim Young-ho give The Pirates a polished and gorgeous look. Their camera makes the CGI sea feel real, giving the film’s more magical elements a distinct sense of whimsy. Whatever issues I may have, there’s an effortlessness to The Pirates that’s easy to miss.
Kim never lets the mishmash of tones from Chun’s script overwhelm the film while ensuring the contrasting tones bring out the best in each other. The Pirates is a cinematic lark with a heavy accent on “lark,” but it never feels as if it’s spinning its wheels. As a result, it’s a movie you sit and watch, spellbound at the time, and then once it’s over, you have trouble remembering much about the film other than you liked it.
Images courtesy of Lotte Entertainment
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