Back in 2003, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl did just about everything right. The breezy mix of comedy, swashbuckling action, exotic locales and attractive stars made it a guaranteed summer blockbuster. Having perfected the formula in their first outing, the cast and crew have no recourse but to do it all over again for the sequel--only bigger, longer, louder, faster, more explosive, with a larger cast, more exotic locales and a whole boatload more special effects. Sadly, progress doesn’t always imply improvement.
As our voyage gets underway, Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley), our sassy lass from the first film, has been left at the altar. Her sweetheart, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), has been arrested and thrown in jail by this season’s scurrilous prig-in-a-wig Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) for assisting in the escape of that most wanted of pirates, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). But Beckett is willing to cut a deal: If Will can bring back Captain Jack’s magical compass, all will be set right.
Naturally, Capt. Jack is loathe to give up the navigational aide, as he’s currently using it to hunt down a mysterious key, which he believes will help him fend off the villainous advance of the legendary Davy Jones (of “Davy Jones’ Locker” fame). Seems that--having only recently reacquired his ship, the Black Pearl, from an army of undead sailors--Jack is on the run from yet another supernatural threat. Apparently, the demonic Davy Jones (Bill Nighy, the film’s best addition) saved Jack’s life once. In exchange, he merely asks for 100 years of servitude aboard his ghostly galleon, the Flying Dutchman. Not so surprisingly, our boy Jack is now looking to welch on this little devil’s bargain.
Once the film sets up its intriguing premise, the script more or less degenerates into an episodic series of action sequences. Breathless though they may be (fighting cannibals, fending off a giant squid, sword-fighting atop a runaway waterwheel), these scenes feel unconnected and artificially inflated, as if the scriptwriters were contractually bound to deliver a two-and-a-half-hour roller coaster ride.
The action is perfectly serviceable, but it’s the comedy angle that suffers most this time around. Truthfully, Johnny Depp’s endearingly odd portrait of the boozy pirate Jack Sparrow was probably the saving grace of the original film. This time around, I’m sad to report, his character has taken a turn toward the irredeemably clownish. Depp totters around the sets, says “Bugger!” a lot and engages in elaborate life-endangering pratfalls worthy of Wile E. Coyote himself. Bloom and Knightley are in there somewhere, too. But in our continuing quest for honesty, let’s just admit they’re serving mostly as pretty window dressing around these parts and be happy with it.
At least the addition of Bill Nighy (Love Actually, Underworld: Evolution) is a welcome one. Under a beard of squiddy tentacles, Nighy revels in his role, turning a thick Scottish brogue into a squelchy hiss of menace. (No small thanks should go to the special effects team, who have turned the charming English actor into such a realistically icky creature of the deep). Since every element of this sequel is busily turned up to “11,” it’s worth noting that Dead Man’s Chest is quite a bit darker and scarier than the original. Geoffrey Rush’s boney villain Capt. Barbossa and his ghostly pirates have got nothing on Jones and his band of watery monsters, all of whom have taken on the slimy characteristics of various forms of sea life. Very young landlubbers are advised to heed that PG-13 rating. (Kudos, again, to those SPFX guys, though.)
It’s also worth pointing out that Dead Man’s Chest ends in a cliff-hanger--which seems like sort of a mean trick to play on audiences who have just forgone 150 minutes worth of bathroom breaks. (Pirates of the Caribbean 3 is being completed as we speak, and will sail into theaters next summer.) Despite its slightly unfinished nature, the film feels like a more or less satisfying chapter as is. It doesn’t leave you hanging in quite the way that, say, 1989’s Back to the Future, Part II did. (Now there’s an inauspicious comparison to bring up.)
Given the diminishing returns of Hollywood sequels in general, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest isn’t a total wash. In terms of action and spectacle, the film will give most summer cineplex audiences their money’s worth. Here’s hoping the next film picks up more than just the pace, though, and offers us some pointed action, a far tighter script and an actual reason to care about these characters--otherwise we’ll be staring down the barrel of another Back to the Future, Part III. And nobody wants that.