Review: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest'

Gore Verbinski's 2003 "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" was a 143-minute unwieldy buccaneer epic that overcame the presence of cinema's blandest leading man (Mr. Orlando Bloom) with the help of cinema's most flamboyant leading man (Mr. Johnny Depp). So powerful was Depp's Oscar-nominated sway that the movie made $300 million domestically and precious few people groused that it should have been 45 minutes shorter.

People who thought that the first "Pirates" movie was a swashbuckling thrill-ride aren't likely to be disappointed by "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," its longer, louder, more expensive, more explosive sequel. It's the people who found deeper pleasures in "Black Pearl" who will be frustrated. While Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's script has moments of sparkle, much of the wit and cleverness has been drowned out by computer effects and stunts involving gigantic hamster balls.

"Dead Man's Chest" begins with poor, wet Keira Knightley stranded at the altar. Knightley's Elizabeth is on the verge of marrying Will (Bloom), but the groom has been thrown in jail by British officials, led by the inevitably unctuous Tom Hollander as Cutler Beckett. Cutler's charging both Will and Elizabeth with some crime stemming from setting Depp's Jack Sparrow free multiple times in the last movie. But what he really wants is Jack Sparrow's compass. And what Jack Sparrow really wants is the key to Davy Jones' Locker. See, Davy Jones and Jack made a deal 13 years back -- Davy would give Jack control over the Black Pearl for a set period of time. In exchange, at the end of that time, Jack would become a sailor on The Flying Dutchman, Jones' ghost ship, crewed by the damned. Is this making sense yet? Do you care?

The actual specifics of what brings Jack, Will and Elizabeth back together aren't worth rehashing, nor are the details involving Will's long-lost father (Stellan Skarsgard), a sexy voodoo practitioner (Naomie Harris), nor the machinations that bring back several favorite supporting characters from the original movie. Really, "Dead Man's Chest" feels like a prime example of screenwriters spinning their wheels. As most everybody knows, a third "Pirates" movie is already in production for release next summer and "Dead Man's Chest" is really just a bridge between the original movie and the concluding chapter (though saying it's more like "The Matrix Reloaded" than "The Empire Strikes Back" would be excessively damning). The things that our heroes take 150 minutes to accomplish in this movie probably could have been dispensed with in 15, but there wouldn't be as much money in that.

And "Dead Man's Chest" is big business. The film's special effects are superb, raising the ante on everything in the original. Sure, "The Black Pearl" had a ship full of evil specters, but they couldn't compete with Davy Jones and his Dutchmen. Filling the screen with grotesquerie, Verbinski gives us a boat full of damned souls who have been underwater for so long that they've taken on the characteristics of the sea. Cheeks sprout with barnacles, take on starfish or resemble sharks, all depicted with great detail. Jones himself has at least one crab claw and a squid for a head, complete with squirmy sucking tentacles and other anatomically correct squishy bits. Nighy's voice and the basic structure of his face are all that remain beneath a magnificent digital effect.

Throw in the massive sea monster known as a Kraken and you've got ample disgusting distractions from the fact that, once again, there's no point in caring about Bloom's Will for a second, which isn't improved Bloom's lone facial expression -- determined-but-not-too-determined. With Will and Elizabeth separated for most of the movie there's no longer any romance to be found, though keeping them apart ought to give more independent screen time to Knightley -- a recent Oscar nominee for heaven's sake -- but she nearly vanishes as well.

It's only Depp who refuses to be devoured by makeup and CG and Hans Zimmer's propulsive score. Sparrow is every bit as bizarre here as in the first film, but he somehow isn't as entertaining. Part of that is the mechanical script, but it's mostly the lack of surprise. How many stories have been written about Depp's performance in the first movie, how many real and fictional characters have been combined to make sense of his choices? Maybe too many, it turns out. Watching Jack Sparrow in "The Black Pearl" was like discovering a new acting continent. Watching him here is like returning to a warm, familiar place -- nice and all, but no longer exciting.

There are almost too many supporting pirates on hand, to the point that I started categorizing them based on where I'd seen them before. With that in mind, kudos to "The Office" Pirate (Mackenzie Crook), "Knee High P.I." Pirate (Martin Klebba) and "Action!" Pirate (Lee Arenberg).

Already, this summer has been so laden with out-and-out disappointments that "Dead Man's Chest" is a bit of a relief. It lacks for neither spectacle or fireworks (though it has no ending). That it somehow delivers on those things and yet comes up short in spirit and soul is more likely to bother disgruntled critics than popcorn-hungry masses.

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