THE PIRATES (2014) – Blu-ray review

I’ll say this for South Korean cinema:  what they do, they do with style. And “The Pirates” has plenty of it.

Director Lee Seok-hoon pays obvious homage to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise with a slick comedy-adventure that features a Johnny Depp-like bandit leader known as Crazy Tiger (Jang Sa-jung) and a female pirate chief-turned-captain (Son Ye-jin). There are funnily harrowing escapes and even a giant water wheel that rolls through a marketplace, all of which will remind you of Captain Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swan.

There’s a thin line between “homage” and “rip-off,” but “The Pirates” also features plenty of quirky originality. How else to describe a plot that turns on a whale that happens to swallow the royal seal and gold that was en route to validate a new dynasty? Though the film is set in 1388 and on the surface seems to tell the epic tale behind the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, there’s more comedy and magical realism in “The Pirates” than there is actual history. If it were an American film we’d be calling it a blockbuster or a popcorn movie, because it’s all about big special effects, a high-concept Hollywood formula, and plenty of action and laughs.

Viewers might even have “Jaws” flashbacks as one scene finds a shark pulling a ship along at a pretty good clip, but mostly it’s the South Korean take on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series. It’s not as good, but it’s also not that far behind. And it really is a lot of fun to watch. Only 15 minutes into the movie my teenage son was cracking up and saying, “This is a keeper. We’re keeping this.” In the Plath household, that means the film merits at least a 7 out of 10 on the Movie Met scale. And I’d have to agree. It felt like a fun ride.

I don’t want to get into spoilers, but while many of the characters are stock types, even the minor roles are as well cast as a Disney movie. And there’s a “Great Race” quality to “The Pirates,” as multiple factions of good guys and bad guys try to retrieve that seal and the gold from the belly of the whale. The bad guys have eye patches and scars, and the good guys have chutzpah and a self-deprecating humor that makes the scenes fun even if you have to read subtitles the whole time. It was engaging enough that my son didn’t even comment about the subtitles.

Some of the effects are those that we saw “pioneered” in “Gladiator”—that slow-motion, stop-motion sequence that’s jarringly edited, rather than extended stuntwork—but there’s enough competent CGI work to more than compensate.

Besides, I enjoyed spending time with this scurvy bunch.

“The Pirates” (aka “Hae-jeok: Ba-da-ro gan san-jeok”) has a runtime of 130 minutes and isn’t rated, but it would, like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, probably merit a PG-13 rating.

“The Pirates” is presented in 16×9 widescreen, and it looks terrific on Blu-ray. There’s always a slightly industrial look to the South Korean films. I think it has to do with the palette, which tends toward the blue. But that distinctive look is also partly responsible for the style that these films have. Detail is terrific, and I saw no problems whatsoever with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer.

I actually like that there’s no dubbed option—only a Korean 5.1 HD Surround Sound/DTS-HD MA—so people have to listen to the original actors and read the English subtitles,—which, by the way, are the default on this Well Go USA Entertainment release. Like the video, the audio production values are superb. The mix is spot-on, and there’s just enough bass to rumble when that wheel rolls, or to give the appropriate metallic clank and clatter to swordfights.

There are no bonus features.

Bottom line:
This South Korean swashbuckler is an entertaining comedy-adventure that’s funnier than it is bloody and as much fun as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films it references.