Dead Man’s Chest gives Baity a case of the scurvy

by Glen Baity

With the benefit of hindsight, let’s go ahead and acknowledge that the first Pirates of the Caribbean had no business being a good movie.

It was, for one thing, a movie about pirates, a subject ill received by filmgoers for a string of decades.

The title was long and clunky, and didn’t inspire very much curiosity as to what a Black Pearl was.

It was, finally, a Disney movie based on a theme park ride, so it’s fair to say the public at large expected it to enjoy about as much success as its forebears in the genre, The Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears.

But against all odds and expectations, The Curse of the Black Pearl was among the best films of 2003 for pure fun, carried largely ‘— okay, exclusively ‘— on the shoulders of Johnny Depp’s staggering, punch-drunk madman, Captain Jack Sparrow.

Jack returns with another Salty Tale of the Sea in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, as the right cap’n finds himself stalked by Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), whose ship, The Flying Dutchman, is crewed by the damned souls of cowardly sailors. It comes to light that Jack made a deal with Jones many years before to secure ownership of the Black Pearl, and now the time has come to render payment in the form of eternal servitude on the Dutchman.

For reasons too complicated to go into, this circumstance throws a monkey wrench into the wedding plans of William Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightly), both of whom set off in pursuit of Captain Jack and further adventuring.

Knightly and Bloom (finally back from his sad jaunt to Elizabethtown) both give perfectly user-friendly performances, as they did in the first go-round. But as in Black Pearl, Dead Man’s Chest gives Depp most of the best lines, and he delivers them with that great drunkard’s flare he showed in the first installment. Watching him weasel his way out of trouble time and again is still worth the price of admission.

But something is off in this film: Since it’s common knowledge these days that a third Pirates is in the works, it probably should’ve been evident, in retrospect, that this would be the Empire Strikes Back ‘— or possibly the Matrix Reloaded ‘— of the trilogy.

That is to say: kind of a bummer, as pirate movies go, and one that lacks a solid ending to boot.

The tone of the film is also considerably darker, and while there’s still a fanciful feel to the whole thing, the fact that Jones is trying to enlist Captain Jack in his nautical Hades ‘— and he actually seems rather serious about it ‘— makes this film markedly unlike a theme park ride.

Nighy’s Jones, it bears mentioning, is a good addition to the franchise. The legend of Davy Jones has something to do with the man cutting out his heart and burying it, thereby taking ownership of the sea and all the sorrows that accompany those scalawags that set upon it.

There isn’t much clarity this telling of the legend, but Jones, with his squid-like visage, peg leg and lobster claws for hands, makes a good villain, even if the CGI that brings him and his crew to life looks a little cheesy.

In fact, most of the special effects, as they did in the first film, feel superfluous and tacked-on. The set designers, costumers and location scouts working on this series have already done a wonderful job transporting the audience to another world ‘— I don’t really see the need to wreck that with a band of computer-generated characters who, quite frankly, don’t blend well at all. There are sequences with Jones’ pet Kraken that achieve a laudable level of wizardry, but like most everything else here, they go on far too long.

Emboldened by the improbable success of the first Pirates, it appears Verbinski and his writing team decided that their perfect popcorn movie could use a dose of earnestness. I guess that’s a necessity if they’re going to stretch these characters across a trilogy, but like pretty much every film that’s second in a line of three, this one will feel incomplete until its resolution comes in a year or two. That can be frustrating for some audiences, and it was a little frustrating for me.

It follows that the second Pirates isn’t the festive romp the original was, and its length requires some unwelcome labor on the part of the viewer to navigate these waters. It therefore falls to the third film, scheduled for 2008, to trim the fat off the story and make with the good old-fashioned swashbuckling.

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