Captain Jack, Elizabeth and Will are back on the high seas in the hotly-anticipated sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The millions of fans that made the 2003 original Curse of the Black Pearl a surprise blockbuster hit will no doubt be lining up again for this new big screen voyage. They may well be disappointed.
In Chest, the first half of a cliffhanger to be resolved next year (oh joy), Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) are about to be married. The local British Crown officials, led by a man named Beckett (Tom Hollander), arrest the duo instead. Their crime: helping Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) escape. The young lovers face execution, unless Will helps track down Sparrow and brings him and his magical compass in (Elizabeth is to remain imprisoned until Will Returns with Jack – or escapes to join the hunt. You guess which happens…).
Jack has issues of his own to deal with. Those come in the form of an old debt he owes to Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), tentacle-faced menace of the ocean and Captain of The Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship. To free Sparrow of his debt, Jones demands two things: the first being 100 human souls for Jack’s. The second also happens to be the real object that Beckett covets: a treasure chest containing an object that will allow whomever is in possession of it to control the Seven Seas.
With Dead Man’s Chest, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio adhere to two movie sequel mantras: bigger is better and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This translates into more Jack Sparrow antics, more villains (in addition to Jones and Beckett, Elizabeth’s fianc from the first movie also returns, played again by Jack Davenport), more action scenes, more visual effects and a longer running time.
But, as we all know, bigger is not necessarily better and familiarity does breed contempt. If Dead Man’s Chest leaves you with a sense of dj vu when it is over, it’s probably because you have seen it all before three years ago – when it was called Curse of the Black Pearl. I found that film joyless, bloated, overly-busy and populated with characters I could care less about, all wrapped around neat visual effects and a running time that went on longer than the Bible. Since the filmmakers didn’t bother to deviate from what made the original such a big hit and try something different or daring (unless you count the lack of three-act story structure audacious), my criticisms are the same for this installment as well.
Depp gives the film his best shot, but that only takes him so far. As Sparrow, Depp stumbles around, tosses off double entendres and proves a decent swordsman, but he really doesn’t add anything new to his character. Meanwhile Bloom and Knightley’s performances reminded me of the shopping-mall zombies from the 1978 version of Dawn of the Dead; both of them turn in a decent impression of a plank of wood – but little else.
The performances that do work in this film come from Bill Nighy (you expected otherwise?) as Jones and Stellan Skarsgard as Bootstrap Bill, a member of Jones’ crew who also happens to be Will’s father. Much like Geoffrey Rush’s fun turn in the Black Pearl, Nighy manages to rise above the heavy-duty visual and makeup effects (which, by the way, are excellent), while Skarsgard’s performance is the only one that manages to elicit any sort of character empathy from the viewer.
Pirates of the Caribbean; Dead Man’s Chest is very reminiscent of The Matrix: Reloaded and Back to the Future II. Those two films were both heavily-hyped sequels to massively popular motion pictures, and were both dour, half baked affairs that were created only to set up even weaker third films. Hopefully the tentatively titled At World’s End will also find us At Series End.