‘Crossbones’ Review: John Malkovich’s Pirate Yarn Stumbles and Never Recovers

NBC’s sword-filled drama about Blackbeard goes off course toward the end of its debut episode, airing Friday night

Here’s the problem with getting your hopes up: They can be dashed so easily.

NBC’s “Crossbones” series drew me in with the prospect of John Malkovich as Blackbeard, and while he does indeed dig into the pirate role with relish, it’s not enough to save the show. The period yarn begins with great verve Friday night, but stumbles over narrative gymnastics to keep key players plotting against each other in subsequent episodes.

Blackbeard must die, we keep hearing, but if he really did, the show would be over at that moment. That might work in the movies, but not for serial entertainment.

So we are treated to rousing swordplay, a poisoning attempt gone awry and various ruthless killings as Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle) repeatedly tries to snare old Blackbeard for the crown. The show leans more closely to blood-and-guts intrigue of Starz’s “Black Sails” than to “Pirates of Caribbean” merriment.

See video: John Malkovich Is an Evil Pirate in NBC’s ‘Crossbones’ Trailer

The show begins in the early 1700s. William Jagger (Julian Sands, who once co-starred with Malkovich in “The Killing Fields”) sends Lowe to get Blackbeard. Jagger once believed he had killed the pirate otherwise known as Edward Teach, but now correctly suspects he’s alive in the Bahamas.

Blackbeard wants control of a newfangled chronometer to better pinpoint marine activity, and the British want to stop him. They’re banking on the device to help them control the seas and their far-flung empire. When Blackbeard’s pirates are in danger of capturing it, Lowe shoots the device and neutralizes the man who designed it, trying to burn the coded instructions before either is captured.

blackbeard-richard-coyle-featuredThe spy, who is posing as a doctor, is ordered to keep chronometer inventor Frederick Nightingale alive or meet his own demise. Meanwhile, Blackbeard passes the codebook over to Selima (Yasmine Al Massri), who conveniently loves puzzles.

“There never was a riddle you could stand to leave undeciphered,” Blackbeard says to her. “This riddle is no exception.”

While Selima goes to work on that project, Lowe tries to find ways to kill Blackbeard. His mate Fletch (Chris Perfetti) aids the cause. There’s another distraction for our spy in the form of Kate Balfour (Claire Foy), a fugitive who sells purloined pirate goods and is married to James (Peter Stebbings), who uses a wheelchair.

See video: John Malkovich Talks Saving Lives and Running Mugger Down With Sean Penn on ‘Tonight Show’

Malkovich lounges about and wears his pirate gear with great panache, effortlessly conveying Blackbeard’s cunning and ruthlessness. He nonchalantly jokes that a wax figure is “the flayed cadaver of a man who betrayed me.” He winks at an old pirate pal about to meet his maker.

Blackbeard, in Malkovich’s interpretation, is deliciously eccentric, just like we would expect him to be. In the NBC telling, he’s a practitioner of acupuncture prone to visions.

Alas, to keep the dance between Lowe and Blackbeard alive, the first episode veers dramatically off course toward its conclusion and never truly regains its footing in the subsequent two episodes made available for review. How many times do really need to see Lowe eavesdropping? Showing that does not suspense make. The dalliance between Lowe and Kate isn’t particularly compelling, and her torture scene verges on absurd.

On the plus side, “Blackbeard” is equal opportunity in showing the British soldiers and pirates are capable of such tactics. And Blackbeard enlivens the proceedings from time to time. But after a while, even the swordplay starts to lose its luster.

What “Blackbeard” really needs is a chronometer of its own.

“Blackbeard” debuts Friday at 10/9c on NBC.