In the opening minutes from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, we’re greeted with a tragic scene. Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) frets over the absence of the groom on her rainy wedding day. The groom in question'Will Turner (Orlando Bloom)'is escorted onto the premises in shackles. Both Elizabeth and Will are charged with high crimes and face a death sentence.
Stop me if at this point you give a crap.
I’m willing to guess that I can continue, because Bloom and Knightley'hard to decide which one is more blandly pretty'had virtually nothing to do with the rousing success of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. It was Johnny Depp’s rum-sodden Capt. Jack Sparrow'with a capable assist from director Gore Verbinski and Geoffrey Rush’s ghostly pirate Barbossa'who stole the show from the moment he made his grandly absurd entrance on a sinking boat. The original Pirates was that rare blockbuster that connected with audiences not on the basis of a star or a concept, but on the basis of a performance. And when Sparrow makes his latest entrance here'blasting his way through the lid of a coffin and an unlucky crow'it’s as though the movie is announcing, “All right, folks, now we can really get started.”
Indeed, once Dead Man’s Chest does get started, it rolls along with an energy every summer movie should aspire to. First, it needs to deal with the baggage of getting all the principal characters back together, which in this case involves Will being required to track down Sparrow in order to save his and Elizabeth’s lives. Sparrow, meanwhile, has his own problems with which to contend'like the fact that he apparently owes his soul to Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), creepy captain of the Flying Dutchman. Davy Jones also commands the sea monster known as the Kraken, which could be controlled by whomever gets his hands on the chest that contains Davy Jones’ still-beating heart, which Sparrow would like to find as leverage against the whole soul-owing thing and...
Give-a-crap check, take two. Yes, Dead Man’s Chest is overplotted, just as its predecessor was, and this is without yet mentioning the eventual inclusion of Elizabeth’s one-time beau Norrington (Jack Davenport) as a bitter washout. Or the introduction of Will’s dead father “Bootstrap” Bill (Stellan Skarsgaard) as a member of Davy Jones’ crew so that there can be some tender corpse/son bonding. Or the occult expert (Naomie Harris) who offers Sparrow advice. Or a lengthy stopover on an island inhabited by cannibals. Yes, cannibals.
By all rights, the 150 minutes of Dead Man’s Chest should feel like a slog and a half through its plot points, but instead it’s actually a crackling piece of action filmmaking. There’s sheer spectacle in stuff like the Kraken attacks and the Flying Dutchman crew of sea critter-infused humans, to be sure, but Verbinski also choreographs terrific sequences that have nothing to do with CGI tentacles. After the appetizer of the rousing escape from the cannibals, he loads up for the climactic confrontation which involves not only an exhilarating triangular sword fight between Will, Norrington and Sparrow, but a jaw-dropping Buster Keaton-esque stunt involving a runaway water wheel. Giddy smiles of disbelief should be a fundamental part of the summer movie-making diet, and Verbinski delivers them.
Depp isn’t too shabby at delivering a few himself. Once again he fully inhabits his seagoing spin on Keith Richards, wrapping his lips around florid syllables or turning drunken stumbles into something approaching graceful pirouettes. Screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio try to give the character some tension between his cowardly nature and a sense of loyalty, but they know well enough not to mess too much with what worked the first time. They give Depp space to use grimaces and raised eyebrows with a subtlety that makes it unfair to call what he does “mugging.” It’s pure comic acting, and it’s still enough to carry an awfully big movie.
It’ll probably be enough to carry another movie as well, when the third Pirates installment--already filmed concurrently with this one--sails next summer. Dead Man’s Chest ends with a cliffhanger that finds our heroes in an Empire Strikes Back-level of disarray, and leaves Sparrow in a pretty tight spot awaiting resolution. But that’s somehow only fitting. It provides the perfect setup for Capt. Jack to make one final improbably entertaining entrance.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST
* * *
Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley