Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Pre-release, the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl, had the dubious and somewhat derisible distinction of being chiefly notable for being based on a Disney theme park ride. After it opened, rival studios weren’t really laughing, though, as the film out-punched, two to one, opening weekend competition The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, easily turned away brawny summer opposition from Terminator and Bad Boys sequels, and sailed away with $300-plus million in domestic booty and even more than that internationally.

The film was a bonafide smash, not the least of which was due to star Johnny Depp’s mincingly flamboyant performance as vainglorious, involuntary hero Captain Jack Sparrow, the savviest hijacking of a high-profile studio film since Elizabeth Berkley’s turn in Showgirls, though that was surely less intentional than a result of Paul Verhoeven’s satirical puppet-mastery. More than that, though, the original Pirates of the Caribbean seemed able — in its devil-may-care differentiation from other summer product — to shrewdly parcel out just the right amount of humor, supernatural horror, period-piece adventure, character detail and swashbuckling thrill. Dead Man’s Chest, the first of two massive Pirates of the Caribbean sequels filmed back-to-back, unfortunately wastes all of this capital and accrued goodwill. While gorgeously lensed, sporadically rousing and driven by an undeniable technical virtuosity, the film is bloated beyond all recognition and has absolutely no flow or consistency — there’s nary a human heartbeat here in its two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time.

Picking up from the first movie, the pretzel-twist story finds erstwhile blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and aristocratic Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) torn apart before they can wed, punished by the British crown for abetting a criminal’s escape. As Will sets forth to retrieve from Jack Sparrow a compass that will help activate pardons for he and Elizabeth, Jack tries to squirm out of a similarly undesirable fate. Having granted him a captaincy for 13 years, squid-faced villain Davey Jones (an enhanced Bill Nighy, above) figures Jack owes him his soul, as initially agreed upon, and he’s out to lay claim to his debt. After a protracted island escape which reintroduces to one another Will and a washed-up Jack — who has fled the dangers of the sea and, naturally, been taken as a god by the natives — familiar gamesmanship and good-natured double-crosses begin.

Jack agrees to give Will his compass if Will boards Davey Jones’ ship, the Flying Dutchman, and retrieves for him a special key. Once onboard, Will meets his long-lost father, Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), now a member of Davey Jones’ accursed crew. Jack is given a three-day extension to round up a bunch of souls in exchange for his, and soon Elizabeth enters the fray as well, in assertive form, searching for Will. Intertwined in a fashion more than a bit overcomplicated, all of these story strands eventually dovetail — along with the legend of Davey Jones’ locked-up heart and a massive, tentacled undersea beast called the Cracken that apparently does his bidding — in a maritime showdown.

First, a note about what’s right with Dead Man’s Chest, which is to say primarily Davey Jones. The computer imagery-effected character is a Gollum-type achievement — literally, one could merely watch him for half the movie’s running time, so fascinating is he in his squishy detail — and Nighy gives him a malevolent pomposity. He’s a worthy and worthwhile villain in the truest senses of the phrase, and if the stakes between he and Jack never feel intensely personal it’s only because of the rest of the movie’s distension.

Speaking of which, Depp gamely goes back to the same well of theatrically prancing tics, and though he’s not given much concrete with which to work, the character of Jack Sparrow remains a roguish charmer because you’re slightly mesmerized by his buoyant unflappability and dogged determination, even as he continually undercuts, manipulates and otherwise sells out all those around him. He’s at his best when he’s outmanned and down and out, which is something the besieged American Everyman can certainly relate to as wish fulfillment.

Still, though it seems ridiculous to say given the first film’s $140 million budget, Dead Man’s Chest feels like a meticulously artificial, shuck-and-jive Hollywood recapitulation of The Curse of the Black Pearl. It’s natural that some of the winds of surprise would be let out of this sequel’s sails, but what was once fresh feels here co-opted, what was enjoyable feels thrice-overbaked in its elaborate duplication. In fact, everything about Dead Man’s Chest feels so emphatically overproduced — from Hans Zimmer’s ridiculously pounding score, telling audiences what to think, to digressive supporting character bits like Naomie Harris’ indecipherable shaman priestess and the forced reintroduction of spurned love interest Commandant Norrington (Jack Davenport) — as to induce audience fatigue.

As conceived by writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, Dead Man’s Chest may be the first half of one massive redux, chopped in two. While perhaps born of economic necessity, this tack triggers a certain creative stillbirth. This approach worked in the Lord of the Rings franchise because there was a more or less natural mooring to be found in the source material; it didn’t work for The Matrix sequels because their mode of production seemed to promote an agenda wherein huge action set pieces were used as counterbalancing ballast rather than flowing naturally from the story. The latter is true of Dead Man’s Chest too.

The pressures of crafting a sequel double-dip yields to wild overcompensation. Oh, sure, everything looks great, courtesy of production design that spares no expense. But Dead Man’s Chest is an empty vessel — colorful and well stocked, but too long and unfocused to truly thrill, at any price. (Touchstone, PG-13, 150 mins.)


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