Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride may have been improved, but the film franchise has been downgraded with this first of two sequels to the 2003 popcorn smash. As with the two “Matrix” follow-ups, which were shot back-to-back like the second and third “Pirates” entries, there is a sense of bloat and where-do-we-go-from here aimlessness to this unconscionably protracted undertaking. As with the “Matrix” pictures, however, public anticipation is such that nothing can stop “Dead Man’s Chest” from filling up with B.O. gold; pic is like a slot machine that gobbles up the public’s money while giving little back, and, somehow, people don’t mind.
Even judged strictly as a commercial product, this new effort seems misguided. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer made sure the key players — Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, as well as director Gore Verbinski and much of the crew — reboarded for the continued voyage, and no expense has been spared in order to make the effects even more spectacular this time around.
But why wear out the film’s welcome with a wearisome two-and-a-half-hour running time when a tight-ship 100 minutes would have insured more constant excitement, not to mention giving exhibitors more showtimes per day?
The first “Pirates,” innocuousness and all, became a $654 million-grossing worldwide phenomenon by virtue of a shrewd blend of old-fashioned storytelling tropes and modern push-button thrill-ride construction. But primary viewer affection stemmed from Depp’s utterly eccentric rendition of a drunken sailor as an inadvertent hero; pic mainstreamed the actor’s appeal to an unprecedented extent while allowing him to keep his cool.
Inevitably, the effect of his wild makeup and costume, mincing manner and carefully calculated unpredictability proves less arresting the second time around. The surprise is gone, but so is the nearly faultless comic timing, not to mention any good lines.
Depp may have been taking risky shots in the dark in creating Jack Sparrow three years ago, but they all felicitously found their mark. This time, the characterization’s haphazard nature becomes transparent; even his best moments trigger only giggles, and the fumbling takes what wind there is out of the picture’s sails.
Scenario by the returning team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio consists of too many over-elaborated searches by various parties for three items: a not entirely reliable compass, a treasure chest and the key that will open it.
Among those involved in the multiple pursuits is Will Turner (Bloom), imprisoned with his bride-to-be Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) by nefarious East India Trading Co. rep Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) and forced to track down Captain Sparrow, who sets sail on the Black Pearl in an attempt to wrest control of the chest from Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), captain of an undead pirate crew capable of considerable nautical mayhem.
Dramatic line consists entirely of connecting the dots between extravagant and aspirationally comic action scenes, which prominently include an escape from cannibals by several men who jointly move in a large viney ball; a three-way sword fight choreographed across an entire island and partly conducted as men peddle the slats of a vast mill wheel as it rolls hither and yon (a gag Buster Keaton would have enjoyed — and done better), and multiple attacks by a ferocious giant octopus whose grotesque beaky mouth, when finally seen in close-up, is the stuff of Freudian male nightmares.
Still, the f/x highlight is undoubtedly the mossy gang — Davy Jones’ misshapen sailors doomed to a purgatory of servitude on board the Flying Dutchman, a mildewy craft of astonishing speed that functions like a submarine above and beneath the waves. As in a clever cartoon, these barnacled men are each distinctively conceived, from the mate who resembles a Hammerhead shark to the bloke whose head remains half-hidden within a shell. Best of all is Davy himself, whose remarkable visage is festooned with a beard of moving octopus tentacles and whose strength as a singular villain is heightened by Nighy’s wily performance.
But the problem with the “Pirates” films, and with this one more than the first, is that there’s not a genuine moment in them — no point of human contact (except, perhaps, for the Herculean efforts of Stellan Skarsgard, behind heavy makeup, to provide hints of a tragic dimension as Will’s doomed father); they’re baldly concocted, confected, engineered.
“Dead Man’s Chest” puts the viewer into a bland stupor, willing to be entertained, and maybe audiences will be, up to a point, by the beautiful actors, sumptuous production values and the stray desires the film may stimulate to go to Disneyland or Las Vegas. These are the odd films that succeed by stirring neither the emotions nor the mind.