Or Our Brand is Pirate, the title that I’ve been using in conversation and seems just as apt for Taika Waititi’s seafaring romp, launched on HBO last year, now on the BBC iplayer, and with a second season already filmed. That means that this revised and modernised tale of Blackbeard the Pirate has been a big enough hit to merit a sequel; while Our Flag Means Death isn’t quite as consistently funny as it should be, it’s a deeply likable, very easy watch with a shipload of comic talent on board.
So let’s start with Rhys Darby, the famous Murray the band manager from Flight of the Conchords, and a valued cameo player in the Jumanji films; for once, he’s not the sidekick here, but a protagonist, Stede Bonnet, a toffee-nosed nobleman who we meet, in media res, long after he’s jacked in his posho lifestyle, wife and family in favour of life on the high seas during the Golden Age of Piracy ie the 18th century. Bonnet is, by his own admission, a fairly rotten pirate by dint of his urbane cowardice, but things take a turn for the better when he runs into Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, played in a role clearly designed for him by Waititi. Genuine wildman Blackbeard is everything that Bonnet is not, but as the two men come to understand and learn from each other, a surprising affection develops…
Created by David Jenkins, Our Flag Means Death feels like a feature film project divided into ten parts; it takes far too long for Blackbeard to appear in a meaningful way. But once the key duo are united, the narrative works like a charm, and a change, the home-erotic buddy movie stylings pay off in a full-on relationship between Bonnet and Teach. This is a pirate romp with the historical feel of the first Blackadder series, and there’s lots of amusing detail, including Bonnet’s petrified orange that he considers to be bounty but turns out to have a worth that he never anticipated. The crew-members range from Ewan Bremner as a certified loon much like Macbeth’s raving porter to Joel Fry’s musical turn as Frenchie. A further layer of support comes from SNL stars like Leslie Jones and Fred Armisten, while Rory Kinnear, Will Arnett and Angus Sampson make up an eclectic cast who all seem to enjoy their silly comic characters.
Our Flag Means Death lacks a singe comic set-piece or enough killer lines to make it a bona fide classic, but that’s not much of the problem with a well-developed plot-line that feels substantially careful about potential gender issues and manages to pull at the heartstrings as we enjoy the spectacle of the two men who put aside their differences and fall in love. It may not be the buried treasure we were looking for, but Our Flag Means Death makes a life on the open waves fun.