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Crossbones lets John Malkovich play dress-up as NBC's decidedly different Blackbeard


John Malkovich’s Blackbeard sometimes has a short temper. NBC photo

Premiering: Friday, May 30th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: John Malkovich, Richard Coyle, Claire Foy, Yasmine Al Massri, Chris Perfetti, Peter Stebbings, Tracy Ifeachor, Julian Sands
Produced by: Neil Cross, Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Ted Gold, Ciaran Donnelly

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Crossbones, NBC’s third scripted series premiere this week, is without any “avasts” or “mateys” or even an “Arrgh.”

It does, however, have John Malkovich in Master Thespian form as a notably voluble Blackbeard the pirate. He presides Colonel Kurtz-like over his hidden island, dispensing occasional violence but mostly threatening it.

Don’t expect him to bite his tongue whenever he’s hammering home a point. Consider this Blackbeard-ian discourse aimed at a captured undercover English spy named Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), who also has a trusty young aide named Fletch (Chris Perletti).

“So you’ll do as I command or I’ll string up young master Fletch in the town square and I will visit upon him such enormities as to make Christ weep,” Blackbeard says, just warming up in Friday’s Episode 1. “I’ll starve him, slit his skin and scourge him and see him violated again and again and again. For if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to spread a legend.”

Consider Lowe’s timbers suitably shivered. But not to the extent of deterring him from his initial plan to assassinate Blackbeard while also protecting the secrets of the vaunted Longitude Chronometer. It’s a game-changer that would allow for pinpoint navigation and end the loss of British ships at sea, circa 1712. Or maybe it’s just a Ouija board.

Lowe also is more or less a doctor, though. And Blackbeard can make for a challenging patient, what with his splitting headaches, insomnia and recurring visions of a ghost-like lady with blood running from her eyes. The poor guy’s tried everything, including a primitive form of acupuncture that leaves his bald head looking like a porcupine. But with amazing swiftness, these dozens of needles suddenly disappear during another verbal joust with Lowe.

Two other episodes also were sent for review. They introduce new crises and flesh out several of the supporting characters while continuing to showcase Blackbeard being Blackbeard (even if he doesn’t fancy the name anymore).

“There are those who consider me evil simply because I have committed depravities,” he laments in Episode 3. And later he’s a veritable 18th century Gordon Gecko while telling Lowe, “This is the new world. Money trumps anger. Money trumps hatred. Money trumps nation, king and country. Money trumps God.” By the way, Blackbeard also stitches his own head wounds.

Meanwhile, Lowe becomes very smitten with Kate Balfour (Claire Foy), who enjoys a daily nude morning swim but is married to wheelchair-bound James Balfour (Peter Stebbings). He was a standup guy, refusing to divulge key information under torture and imprisonment. Kate then lied, stole and bribed to bring James back to her in disrepair. She has longings that he can’t quite satisfy.

Blackbeard’s main lady is hard-bargaining Selima El Sharad (Yasmine Al Massri), who likewise is prone to other temptations of the flesh. There’s also the demonic King of Jamaica, William Jagger (Julian Sands). He’s possibly an even nastier guy than Blackbeard.

It’s quite a jumble in these first three hours, with Lowe skulking to and fro while Blackbeard punishes, forgives and talks up a storm.

“We may have come close to the end. But close to the end is not the end, is it?” he tells Kate after she undergoes some extreme trauma in Episode 3. Many years later, Yogi Berra would say essentially the same thing: “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.”

All in all, Crossbones is about as believable as Casanova in a seminary. But there’s some fun to be had and some Malkovich to behold. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see his Blackbeard sprout horns or grow wings in future episodes. But that’s OK. Just keep that wild-swinging verbiage coming or I’ll let the snapper turtles have at ya while the sun broils your pasty flesh to the point where you’ll cry like a baby with a three-day load in his britches while your mother is forced to play your funeral dirge before being strapped to a splintered raft and sent out to sea for the carrion birds to feast on.



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