Break out the popcorn, because director Gore Verbinski has finally delivered the first release of 2006 to actually feel like a summer movie. So far the season has offered up one somber, selfimportant epic after another. From Brett Ratner’s soulless X-Men: The Last Stand to Bryan Singer’s brooding Superman Returns, it was beginning to look like Hollywood had forgotten how to have any fun. Leave it to the sequel of a film based on an amusement park ride to remind us why we shell out 10 bucks to sit in the dark with a couple hundred strangers.
Inventive, playful, sprawling and sloppy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is a joyously raucous slice of cinematic mayhem. Following up the 2003 surprise hit that grossed nearly $700 million worldwide, Verbinski and his spirited cast shamelessly mug their way through the second chapter of an elaborate pirate trilogy.
Johnny Depp returns as Captain Jack Sparrow, the dandified Keith Richards-y pirate of questionable morality and hygiene. When he learns he owes a Faustian debt to the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), Jack and his crew desperately search for a mythical buried chest that will grant them control of the Seven Seas. Hot on their trail, however, is the kraken, a terrifying sea creature.
Meanwhile, a corrupt bureaucrat imprisons Will and Elizabeth (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley) on their wedding day for treason, and blackmails Will into hunting down Jack. Of course, it isn’t long before fiery Elizabeth escapes and follows her beau into misadventure. Along the way they confront man-eating islanders, a voodoo priestess, Will’s long-lost father, Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), and Davy Jones’ hideously mutated crew.
Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Shrek, Aladdin, Zorro), who also helped script the first film, bundle every possible pirate convention into one big treasure chest of swashbuckling adventure. Though the pace in the first act lumbers along, dutifully setting the story in motion, it eventually gives way to one outrageous situation after another. The ride, not the destination, becomes everything. Elaborate swordplay, fish-faced villains, tentacled sea monsters, supernatural blood debts, buried treasure, noble heroes and dastardly rogues; the story almost becomes unimportant. Still, one has to wonder whether the film really needed to be two-and-a-half hours long, plus a post-credits sequence.
Once again, Captain Jack shamelessly steals the show, sashaying and camping his way through the film. Depp handles both the madcap and macabre with comedic panache, giving his preening pirate just enough gravity to keep the character from self-parody. While the shtick may not be as fresh as it was the first time around, it’s still damn entertaining.
Bloom and Knightley are fairly bland, their well-scrubbed personas no match for the scurrilous scoundrels and wonderfully weird creatures that emerge from Pirates’ shadows. The supporting cast, however, is terrifically eccentric. Best of all is Bill Nighy as the fantastically villainous Davy Jones: half-man, half-seafood special. Acting through CGI and pounds of prosthetics, he dispenses just the right amount of scenery-chomping menace. While he’s not nearly as engaging as Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa, his grotesque face swallowed by undulating octopus tentacles is a fantastically freakish creation.
The CGI work is astounding. From Davy Jones’s barnacle-encrusted crew to the impossibly immense kraken (taken straight from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), producer Jerry Bruckheimer has spared no expense to impress his audience. The reliance on visual spectacle occasionally intrudes on the simple joys of swashbuckling action; but near the end of the film, a dazzling three-way swordfight on a runaway mill wheel takes center stage.
Much like The Empire Strikes Back, Dead Man’s Chest plays like the middle chapter in a cinematic triptych, complete with surprise plot reversals and a cliffhanger ending. Unfortunately, this is what undermines much of the film’s momentum. Still, if you ignore the convoluted plot and surrender to Dead Man’s Chest’s goofy, action-packed charm, you’ll find it a joyously thrilling romp.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.