South Korean blockbuster “The Pirates” seems to have looted its formulaic plot directly from Hollywood. It’s a derivative trove of swashbuckling action, romance, comedy, special effects and revisionist history — the kind of film that would be pitched to studio execs as “Pirates of the Caribbean” meets “Free Willy.”
Why “Free Willy”? Because in 1388, at the dawn of the Joseon dynasty, a royal seal bestowed by the Chinese Ming dynasty is swallowed by a whale after a shipwreck. To evade punishment, the envoys claim they were under siege from pirates, while offering a large under-the-table bounty for the capture of the whale.
Four rival search parties sharing some unfinished business with one another all covet this lucre. Principled pirate Yeo-wol (Son Ye-jin) faces off against her ruthless mentor, Soma (Lee Kyeong-yeong); deserter-turned-bandit Jang Sa-jung (Kim Nam-gil, channeling Johnny Depp) faces off against his treasonous former chief, Mo Heung-gap (Kim Tae-woo). Through it all, Yeo-wol and Sa-jung meet cute and play hard to get.
When Yeo-wol spots the whale’s newborn calf, her maternal instincts kick in and she hesitates to go for the kill. The nautical rat race leading up to the film’s conclusion, however, can feel strained. Scenes of comic relief inexplicably pop up to stall an impending fight scene. A village gets unnecessarily pillaged just for exposition. Things get blown up because the characters happen to get their hands on imported grenades.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
Playing: At CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles.