Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Reviewed By Todd LaPlace
Posted 07/12/06 19:19:25

"Abandon ship or abandon hope."
1 stars (Sucks)

Let’s just cut to the chase. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” is 2 1/2 hours long. I guess that’s better than getting hit in the head with a sledgehammer or being set on fire, but not by much.

I would like to start this review by relating to you my first thought as the credits started rolling on “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” I wish I could tell you it was about the confounding wonder that is Johnny Depp (which he is) or the whimsical watchability of the plot (which it lacks). Nope, it’s considerably simpler: this is the movie that never EVER ends. This is the real “Neverending Story,” as it just goes on and on…and on…and on…and on. And just when you think it’s over, it goes on and on all over again. If for some unbeknownst reason you liked the first, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” maybe you’ll welcome the 150 minute running time. But I doubt it, because while “Dead Man’s Chest” isn’t the absolute worst, scraping the bottom of the barrel, where no light can penetrate, god-awful movie I’ve ever seen in my life, it’s definitely putting up a good fight.

Because the box office clout of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” name is still running high, I guess it does make sense to whip out sequels at a frenzied pace by consecutively filming “Dead Man’s Chest” and No. 3, tentatively titled “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” Did director Gore Verbinski and co-writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio learn nothing from the Wachowski brothers’ disastrous “Matrix” sequels? I believe “Curse of the Black Pearl” was salvageable because it’s an independent entity; it fulfills the three act structure and concludes in a neat little bow. Nos. 2 and 3, however, are meant to be seen as a collective, almost like serial television. That probably means they were written as one bloated story, and because “Dead Man’s Chest” is being released before No. 3 is even finished filming, there’s no telling which minute details need to make the cut and which don’t. Therefore, we’re already running at excess to tell the overstuffed narrative that’s being weighed down by too many characters and crisscrossing subplots. The bottom line is the movie’s plain too long. I mean, if you don’t cut anything, how is Disney going to earn a few extra bucks by peddling multiple expanded and director’s cut editions?

But all of that is needless overanalyzation of what could (and should) have been. Instead, let us deal with what we’re dealt, no matter how mind-numbingly lame it is. On the day of their wedding, Will Turner (ex-It Boy Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (still-It Girl Keira Knightley) are both arrested for their shenanigans at the end of the previous film when they rescued Capt. Jack Sparrow from the gallows and helped him escape to his ship. The man behind the arrest, Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) of the East India Trading Company, is willing to cut them a deal if they bring him Sparrow’s legendary “broken” compass. Still doing his enjoyable Keith Richards impersonation, Depp’s Sparrow is using said compass to search for a treasure of innumerable value, which will allow him to strike at the heart of Davy Jones himself.

Luckily for Sparrow, it shouldn’t be too difficult, because as it turns out, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) is an actual pirate, albeit the evil squid-like captain of a group of ragtag urchin- and crab-encrusted lackeys (and a random half-hammerhead shark/half-human hybrid that’s given no further explanation). The film does offer some long-winded explanation on how one comes to join the crew and what the indentured obligations are, but I honestly couldn’t rehash it now. When it comes to Jones and his crew, only a handful of things are important. One, Verbinski spent a lot of time and money to CGI the hell out of this crew, and it shows. While he doesn’t really explain why crew members eventually resemble sea animals, they look good enough to almost bypass the question entirely. Two, Jones doesn’t take kindly to other pirates attempting to steal his treasure, meaning you’re going to see plenty of Jones vs. Sparrow showdowns. And three, the starfish-faced member of Jones’ crew is Bootstrap Bill Turner (Stellan Skarsgard), Will’s long lost father, which means you’re guaranteed to get a few Jones vs. Will fights too, especially when the latter infiltrates the former’s crew.

Oh, and then there’s Jones’ pet Kraken, a huge squid that’s quite adept at taking down pirate ships in one-swift hit. Again, Verbinski has clearly spent more than a few doubloons on CGI, and luckily it pays off. The visual appeal of the “Pirates” movies is certainly hard to refute.

If only the narrative matched the mise-en-scene. The film has a tendency to meander without strongly hitting any of the required points. When Will is first released to track down Jack, he asks perhaps three people to help before, all of a sudden, he finds Jack as the leader of a cannibalistic island cult (if you think the “King Kong” natives were racist…), and once they escape that trap, they all head down some river to chat with a disheveled voodoo priestess, seer, mystic woman (“28 Days Later’s” fantastic Naomie Harris) who conveniently knows the exact location of both Jones’ treasure chest and the key that opens it. Verbinski does well in highlighting his strong cast and his expensive-CGI shots, but it’s always at the expense of story, which might be passable if the weak story wasn’t awkwardly attempting to hold the 2 1/2 hour story together.

But while the film is deeply flawed, many of the performances are not. I must admit befuddlement when Depp was nominated for best actor at the 2004 Oscars, but after “Chest,” I’m shocked no longer. His shtick — and it is a shtick, no matter how well executed — translates well to his role as reluctant anti-hero, especially when he’s playing the role of sneaky, underhanded thief. He’s at his most charming when he’s attempting to hand Will over to Davy Jones to pay his debts, but to be fair, that might just be because it seems like we’ll be Bloom-free for a while. Playing the goody-two-shoes Luke Skywalker role, Bloom (who’s stiffer than stiff performance is yet another example of Bloom’s failure to live up to his previously touted potential) doesn’t get the chance to do much more than stew over his inability to free his slave father. When they’re not being upstaged by Depp, the rest of the major supports — from Knightley to Nighy to Skarsgard — are definitely talented and well worth their paychecks. Even the lesser pirates (which include British “Office” star Mackenzie Crook) shine in their small roles as the comic relief.

There are so many little things to admire about “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” but ultimately it all boils down to one simple question: Can a movie survive without a decent story? Verbinski deserves credit for assembling a great ensemble cast and a phenomenal special effects team, but it doesn’t make up for his and his writers being tremendous hacks. From “The Mexican” to “The Ring” to “The Weather Man,” Verbinski has always been trying to take forgettable genre pieces and raise them to the level of transcending, grandiose pictures. He’s never quite managed to get there, but at least he’s solidified himself as a go-to man for big-budget, big-box office trash.

Do you remember the movie “Cutthroat Island”? That Geena Davis (!)/Matthew Modine (!!) movie that Renny Harlin (!!!) directed? That used to be the worst movie ever made about pirates. Congrats, Gore Verbinski. You win.

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