When producer Jerry Bruckheimer announced plans to make back-to-back sequels to his 2003 smash Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, what he really had in mind was one gargantuan megamovie to be divided, for reasons having everything to do with commerce and nothing to do with art, into two. Now, Part 1 of that effort is upon us, and the problem isn’t that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is only half a movie, it’s that it feels like one — an elaborate tease that’s effectively a feature-length coming attraction for Pirates III. If the original Pirates held the dubious distinction of being history’s first motion picture based upon a theme-park ride, Dead Man’s Chest may be the first movie based on what it feels like to spend all day waiting in line for a theme-park ride, only to get to the front and be told “Sorry, out of order.”
You’d have to think back to The Matrix Revolutions, or maybe even Back to the Future Part II, to come up with a Hollywood sequel less satisfying than this one. Then again, I didn’t take all that much satisfaction in Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski’s snarky swashbuckler the first time around, despite the $600 million worth of moviegoers worldwide who might beg to differ. That waterlogged vessel took most of the first hour to lumber out of port, and even once it did, it lacked the rambunctious buoyancy that Bruckheimer and Verbinski were clearly striving for. Not that it made a difference. I could note now, as I did then, that Pirates I was inferior in almost every respect to The Black Pirate (1926) or The Sea Hawk (1940) or any of the great high-seas adventures of Hollywood yore; but some of those movies were in black and white and some of those were even silent (ewww!), whereas Pirates was a novelty act — a pirate movie for audiences unaccustomed to pirate movies, just as Chicago and Moulin Rouge were musicals for people who didn’t know musicals. It was also a movie you could supposedly take the whole family to during the long, hot days of summer, no matter its tacit endorsement of alcoholism as a lifestyle choice, or the sight of Johnny Depp in eye shadow and braids — a spectacle of sexual ambiguity more alarming than a purple Teletubby.
Pirates II doesn’t significantly tinker with that proven formula, least of all where Depp and his rum-soaked Captain Morgan routine are concerned. And why should it? In addition to all that box-office booty, the original Pirates racked up five Oscar nominations, including Depp’s first for best actor. (So far be it from me to suggest that the role may be the most one-note this very brilliant performer has had since 21 Jump Street.) Picking up more or less where we last left off, Chest finds Sparrow in a predictably tight spot, having made new enemies in this world and the next. He’s run afoul of that mythical keeper of the great aquatic beyond, Davy Jones, who 12 years earlier installed Sparrow at the helm of the mighty Pearl and now wants payback — in the form of Sparrow’s eternal soul. Meanwhile, the British East India Company wants Sparrow — or, rather, his enchanted compass — for its own purposes, and it’s persuaded the gallant swordsmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) to help, lest he and his feisty fiancée, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), go to the gallows for their complicity in Sparrow’s escape at the end of the first film.
With a few more strokes of their keyboards, returning screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio get the whole motley crew reassembled, right down to the uncooperative jailhouse terrier that, per the film’s press notes, was one of the most beloved characters in the first Pirates movie and the original ride. (Who knew?) Together, they all set sail for a new series of misadventures, including a run-in with some cannibalistic natives (a notch or two below Peter Jackson’s Skull Islanders on the ethnic-insensitivity scale) who want to turn Sparrow into a human shish kebab. Lord Tennyson’s epochal sea beastie, the kraken, even makes an appearance. And before long, all roads lead to the eponymous coffer and its prized contents: the still-beating ticker of the brokenhearted Jones.
As before, everyone onscreen is having a grand old time, particularly Depp, mugging it up like the cooked ham he nearly becomes (even if he seems generally less contemptuous of the material than he did last time). But the filmmaking itself is joyless, and despite the impressive enormity of the physical production, the images are flat and drab, with one major sequence (set in a voodoo priestess’s foggy lair) so stage-bound it could have been shot inside the Pirates ride. Verbinski also can’t execute an exciting action scene to save his life. Even when he has a great idea for a stirring set piece — like a third-act, three-way sword fight that culminates atop a giant runaway mill wheel — he persistently turns his camera away from the action at the very moments he should be pulling us deeper into it, until you begin to wonder if Verbinski isn’t trying to mutiny his own movie.
In truth, he may just not be cut out for this sort of thing. After a decade of work as a reliable but uninspired Hollywood journeyman, last year Verbinski made The Weather Man, a gutsy little parable about mediocrity and the dark side of the American success ethic that few people saw, but which in every way suggested a sharper, tougher, more honest American Beauty, with an excellent Nicolas Cage as a television weather forecaster who’s a disappointment to everyone in his life — most of all to himself. So, it’s no real surprise then that the best part of Dead Man’s Chest takes place upon The Flying Dutchman, a literal ghost ship where Jones presides over a crew of the eternally damned, including Turner’s own estranged pirate father, Bootstrap Bill (played with elegant, Bergmanesque suffering by Stellan Skarsgård). The scenes in which Bill attempts to make amends with his son from beyond his watery grave are genuinely affecting and just about the only moments in which Dead Man’s Chest deepens or expands our sense of the first film’s characters in the way that the best movie sequels can do. No less tragic a figure is Jones himself — a ghastly apparition with lobster-claw hands, a great bulbous neck and a head of writhing, molluskoid tentacles. Inhabited with titanic gusto by the great British character actor Bill Nighy (Love Actually), under virtual pounds of CG makeup, Jones turns the movie on with his grandness, his sadism and his tortured pining for his lost lady love. It’s a terrific performance, and one that leaves Depp’s looking ever more like a flashy parlor trick.
Alas, even Nighy is scant compensation in a movie that’s infernally boring for much of its running time, and then, just as the pulse starts to quicken: To be continued. At which point, Dead Man’s Chest has its audience as captive as Davy Jones’ crew, ready to come back next summer and plunk down another $10 to see how it all ends. The entire Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is turning out to be either one hell of a practical joke, or a far more ingenious kind of movie piracy than the sort Hollywood spends so much time fretting over. Either way, Jerry Bruckheimer is laughing all the way to the bank.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST | Directed by GORE VERBINSKI | Written by TED ELLIOTT and TERRY ROSSIO, based on characters created by ELLIOTT, ROSSIO, STUART BEATTIE and JAY WOLPERT, based on Walt Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” | Produced by JERRY BRUCKHEIMER | Released by Walt Disney Pictures | Citywide