Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/06/06 21:23:55

"Yarrr! Lubbers who don't like this sequel must walk the plank! Yo ho!"
5 stars (Awesome)

It’s safe to say that “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” ranks among the decade’s finest surprises. It was a movie nobody thought would amount to much, and so, while no one was looking, director Gore Verbinski nabbed a witty screenplay, assembled a dream cast, and set to work on making a swashbuckler that delivered far more high-quality fun than anyone figured was coming. Now comes the first sequel, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” and the problem is that we can’t be surprised anymore. We’re all watching, waiting to see if the magic can be duplicated; there’s no chance for Verbinski to come out of nowhere with this one. The best this movie can do is meet expectations. The good news, then, is that it meets them splendidly.

“Dead Man’s Chest” is most certainly a worthy sequel, as tightly constructed, expertly filmed, and wonderfully performed as its predecessor. It is also, of course, a whole heap of fun, a most enjoyable ride. (“Ride” being no small word considering the series’ origins as a movie “adaptation” of sorts of the Disney theme park ride; movies based on corporate franchise nothingness have no right being as good as the “Pirates” films are. The trick, then, is to ignore the cash grab origins of the franchise and understand that the filmmakers have risen so far above them that you can’t even see them anymore from where they stand.)

All of our favorites have returned: Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley) have been arrested for assisting in the escape of our old pal Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). A mysterious representative from the East India Trading Company offers Will a deal - find Sparrow, retrieve his compass, and Will and Elizabeth will be set free. Ah, but Captain Jack’s not so easy to find, and beyond that, he’s not so willing to part with his compass, for that holds an important role in the finding of Davy Jones’ chest.

That’s right, Davy Jones himself appears here, with Bill Nighy offering up a performance mostly hidden behind what seems to be at least fifty pounds of make-up. (Much to Nighy’s credit, that fifty pounds of make-up does nothing to hinder what turns out to be a splendid performance.) You thought Barbossa’s ghost pirates were scary, inventive, and oh so much fun? Wait ’til you get a load of Jones and his crew, an assortment that can best be described as undead sea monster pirates. Jones, cursed to sail the seven seas aboard his Flying Dutchman, is a squid-man; his first mate has the head of a hammerhead shark; all poor souls resigned to spending eternity as part of Jones’ crew find themselves slowly becoming part of the sea. (For one, Stellan Skarsgård - now there’s a great pirate name if ever there was one, arrr! - appears covered in coral, a starfish forever placed on his face.)

There is some nonsense about Jones’ buried chest, and a hidden key, and that magical compass, and what wonderful nonsense it is. This is the stuff of high adventure gone beautifully giddy, the bit about the key and the compass and the chest merely being the MacGuffins that lead our intrepid heroes from thrill to thrill. As with the original film, the action is plenty, with swordplay, chases, barroom brawls (in Tortuga, no less!), battles at sea, escapes from cannibals, and yes, even the classic moment when Will Turner gets to jab his knife into a sail and slide down effortlessly, just the way any self-respecting hero of a pirate movie should get to do at least once.

We get an awful lot of movie in this movie, so to speak - the running time pushes two and a half hours - yet not once does the story drag, nor does it tire out the viewer. We’re consistently swept along for the thrill, safely in the hands of a masterful director who knows how to get the most out of any situation. Verbinski is steadily climbing my list of most dependable filmmakers, and his work on “Dead Man’s Chest” only serves to push him even higher. Here is a director who can effectively juggle comedy, action, and frights, building these expert little moments yet never losing sight of the big picture. “Dead Man’s Chest” is an epic adventure built the way epic adventures should be.

At his side are Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, two more names to trust. They co-wrote the first film and now nab screenwriting duties all for themselves, and what luck to have these two exceptional writers aboard. Anyone can build a series of eye-popping action set pieces, and plenty more can connect them into a workable story. What Elliott and Rossio do is fill in the fine details. And not just in aspects of the plot (which, by the way, flows with the greatest of ease). Just listen to their dialogue: it sings. Captain Jack explains to his first mate how he came to be where he came to be, and he whittles it down most simply: “Complications arose, ensued, were overcome.” This duo has an ear for how Sparrow talks, giving him all the kookiest lines, yet unafraid to shine the spotlight on others as well. (They’re smart enough to not let this sequel become the Jack Sparrow Show; the original worked with Depp’s character as part of a greater whole, and while the temptation must have arose to Fonzie things up and make the most popular character the main focus, Elliott and Rossio stick to what worked before - without, of course, forgetting to keep everything fresh.) Listen to the side banter that occurs between Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook, who return as two bumbling pirate fools. It’s comedy of the sharpest kind.

Back for a moment to Captain Jack. From his glorious arrival to the last time we see him in this movie, we’re reminded that this is one of the greatest of all modern movie characters. There’s something magical in what Depp does in his performance, assisted, of course, by knowing direction and expert writing. Here is a scoundrel and a hero, comic relief in the leading role, and we simply cannot take our eyes off him. For his second time around with the character (a first for the actor, who has never reprised a role before now), Depp reminds us what made Sparrow so amazing last time, yet he never relies on merely repeating himself. (It is, I suppose, all a part of what makes the entirety of “Dead Man’s Chest” work; we get the heart of what worked before without becoming bogged down in rerun.) Captain Jack once again becomes such an amazing, captivating character that perhaps it’s safe to say these performances will be well-loved for years - decades, even - to come.

It all adds up to what becomes a flawless entertainment offering, one as breathtaking as its predecessor. The franchise is two-for-two in a very big way, and if the third film (due next summer) stays on this track, then we’ll be looking at one of the most wonderful of all movie trilogies, grand entertainment that deserves every hearty yo-ho-ho that comes its way. The “Pirates” franchise is about as much fun as you can possibly have at the movies. Arrrrrr!

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