Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
2006Director: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley
ppropriately enough for a movie that’s based on a Disney World theme park ride, critically evaluating Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is akin to writing a review of a roller coaster. What is there to say, really? You go up, you go back down, you leave slightly dizzy, everybody claps, and the whole thing is a harmless exercise in good, clean fun. And expecting anything “more” from the experience makes you feel like an ungrateful killjoy. After all, it’s absurd to want intellectual fulfillment or spiritual satisfaction from what is quite explicitly a content-free thrill ride.
But that would be letting the fun but deeply flawed Pirates off the hook a bit too easily. I’m perfectly willing to grade on a curve where these things are concerned (an “A” rating for a summer movie extravaganza is a fundamentally different animal than an “A” for, say, an Ingmar Bergman film), but that doesn’t mean an abandonment of standards. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a popcorn flick, too, but an extraordinary one whose appeal hasn’t soured a bit. For that matter, the forerunner to Dead Man’s Chest, 2003's Curse of the Black Pearl, took its self-appointed mission to be the summer’s biggest hit very seriously and delivered the goods with style to spare. For all its eye-popping special effects, hilariously skewed over-acting, and B-movie storyline, that film ultimately succeeded because it was a lean piece of storytelling with a real sense of whimsy. By contrast, Dead Man’s Chest is overblown from the opening credits, hamstringing its sometimes terrific fight scenes and laugh-out loud comic moments with a ludicrously convoluted storyline and wildly uneven sense of pacing. Oh, and one other thing—this movie is loooonnnnnggggg. Summer movie audiences should be laughing, screaming, or otherwise riveted to the screen in anticipation of the next scene’s delights. They shouldn’t be checking their watches repeatedly during the film’s last hour.
The flaws of Dead Man’s Chest are the flaws of countless other blockbuster sequels. Sequel syndrome usually involves taking the successful formula of the first movie and cranking it into overdrive, making every scene Bigger and Badder and ultimately losing the focus that created the success in the first place. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who was a lovable rake merely trying to get his ship back from some undead pirates in the first film, is here the subject of an awesome conspiracy involving, as far as I can tell, large swaths of the British Empire and the greedy designs of the East India Trading Company (unfortunate shades of the awful Trade Alliance subplot last seen ruining the new Star Wars movies). I’d go into the details of this conspiracy, if I A) cared, and B) fully understood it. Suffice it to say that Capt. Jack is in great peril, as are his boon companions of the first movie, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, as functionally bland as ever), and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley, turning in some rock-solid work). In addition to fighting off the capitalist predations of the East India Company, the trio needs to vanquish a ship full of undead pirates, cursed by the terms of their unholy bargain with death to slowly begin resembling sea creatures (the makeup and special effects work on these guys is genuinely creepy). This crew is captained by Davy Jones himself, played by an in-form Bill Nighy as a sort of pissed off Scottish squid. Good times...
This really should be enough, should it not? A movie like Dead Man’s Chest engages in intricate plotting only at its peril. But alas, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio felt the need to throw in some useless dreck about Will Turner’s father (Stellan Skarsgard), who is a member of Jones’ unholy crew but really hates it and needs his son to rescue him and bond like they never did when Will was a kid and blah blah blah. The filmmakers do not seem to realize that not everyone needs their own extended back-story–for God’s sake, shouldn’t the undead Scottish squid hold enough interest without the need for poorly developed father/son dynamics between two members of the supporting cast? A good Pirates movie should be Jack Sparrow’s show, with some fun scene-chewing villainy from the assorted bad guys thrown in every few minutes.
Speaking of which, does Depp acquit himself as brilliantly as he did in the first movie, where he created a hero of such iconic strangeness that merely looking at his face is capable of triggering a sort of comic Pavlovian response in the minds of audience members? Not exactly, but then, some of that is the fault of the writers. Depp does what he can with his sun-baked Keith Richards routine, as full of tics and oddities as ever, but is strangely decentered in the plot of this film. It’s as if the filmmakers kept getting distracted by the machinations of the storyline and somehow forgot that one of the great comic creations in recent memory was sitting right in their laps, practically begging to be unleashed on a delighted audience.
Okay, so, is Dead Man’s Chest a complete disaster? Well, no, despite its many flaws. A movie this overstuffed is bound to have some good parts, and the movie does show more than a few flashes of the unhinged silliness and spectacular action sequences that made the first film so much fun. Director Gore Verbinski, despite his apparent inability to pare cinematic fat, does know how to stage one hell of an action sequence, and in fact stages several, with a three-man sword fight in a giant rolling wheel (you read that right) ranking as my personal favorite. Between the action and the comedy, the last part of the movie is able to build some serious momentum, leading up to pseudo-climax (there’s a third movie, naturally) that is a triumph of humor and spectacle. The problem is, the movie takes so long to get there and drifts off into so many detours, that it’s impossible to leave the theater on a completely satisfied note.
That said, see Dead Man’s Chest and enjoy your thrill ride, but don’t be surprised if you’re a little disappointed before finally being deposited, happy but a tad nauseous, back into the safety of a warm summer night. After all, there are plenty of roller coasters in the world, and most of them are a lot of fun. But for a movie that could have been the cinematic equivalent of the one and only Coney Island Cyclone, we have to expect a little bit more.
Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest is playing in theatres across the country.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2006-07-18