Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest Review
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is in real trouble this time. Thirteen years ago, the world's most hopeless pirate made a deal with Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), the undead lord of the sea, to arrange for him to captain his own ship, the Black Pearl, for thirteen years. In return, he promised Davy Jones his soul. Thirteen years are up and Davy Jones has come to collect. Jack has only one chance: buried in a chest - the Dead Man's Chest - on an uncharted desert island lies Davy Jones' beating heart. If Jack can find that chest and the key to open it, he can bargain his way out of damnation.
Back in civilisation, Jack's former shipmates, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) have their own problems. They've both been arrested on their wedding day by Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), a slimy agent of the East India Company. The charge is aiding Jack's escape from British justice in the original movie. Beckett wants the same prize Jack Sparrow is after for his own mercenary reasons, so he gives the young lovers a choice: face the gallows or bring him Sparrow.
One of the most anticipated blockbusters of 2006, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is also one of the year's biggest disappointments. Its 2003 predecessor got away with murder, breaking the pirate movie box office curse with no bankable stars and an unproven action director, so maybe its makers - producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio - thought they could get away with absolutely anything the second time around. They couldn't. Dead Man's Chest is a shocking mess. It looks like it was conceived by compiling a list of every mistake you can make when producing a sequel and ticking them off one by one.
(1) It's more of the same. That was almost inevitable. There's only so much you can do with a pirate adventure inspired by a theme park ride and The Curse Of The Black Pearl did it all. Like The Mummy Returns, Pirates II is hard pressed to come up with new ways to wring excitement from the same, limited corner of pop culture. Once again, we get greasy pirates, once again an evil captain and his undead crew, once again smarmy British creeps, ancient curses and endless battles with cannon, pistol, cutlass and fist.
The only new elements are an enormous squid, a tribe of cannibals and a voodoo priestess (Naomie Harris) living in a swamp, who might remind ageing PC gamers of the voodoo priestess from Monkey Island. Some effort has been made to come up with new action sequences but they're not very memorable and they don't come close to matching the swordfights and ship battles in the original. In their place, we get not one but two lengthy escapes from hostile islands, not one but two giant squid attacks and an awful lot of punch-ups and sword fights.
(2) The character development in the first film is all but ignored. I hate when sequels try to revert the relationships back to what they were originally - when they make the buddy cops hate each other again or the romantic couple go back to bickering. Jack Sparrow may have been a rogue but he was a redeemable one and by the end of The Curse Of The Black Pearl, we had the feeling there was some sort of respect and affection between him and the more conventionally heroic couple, Will and Elizabeth. They'd been through an adventure and risked their lives for each other. That's all thrown out the window in Dead Man's Chest. Sparrow is once again selfish and despicable and there seems to be very little love lost between him and the others. This is a little depressing.
The characters in general are very poorly defined. The script makes it difficult to tell who's up to what and who cares about whom - people are saving each other's lives one moment and turning on each other the next. Two of the three leads commit acts of personal betrayal that are genuinely unpleasant and also hard to swallow, based on what we know about them. In both cases, these treacheries serve mainly to advance the plot. Since we don't really have a handle on the characters, it's all but impossible to take an interest in what's happening to them.
(3) The movie is too much - way, way too much. Of course the first film was also too much. At a bloated two hours and twenty minutes, it ran half an hour longer than it should have and it was a little exhausting the way the story threw in everything but the kitchen sink. Compared to Pirates II however, Pirates I is a model of economical film-making. The sequel adds a further ten minutes to the running time and has an even thinner story, which it pads out with unnecessary characters, digressions and action scenes. Money is flung at the screen for the sheer sake of it, as it was in Star Wars Episode III and King Kong. Every scene looks like it cost millions and the $200 million budget suggests that it did. Everything is big, big, big.
The effect of all this action and spectacle is wearying. You aren't excited or especially entertained; you sit there observing it and wondering why so much effort has been lavished on things that add nothing to the film. The long episode involving the cannibal tribe is silly even by Pirates' standards and all it does is stretch out an already slow first hour. A trading ship and its crew are introduced so they can be used as a plot device to transport the leads from place to place. The ship's eventual fate is a prime example of an unnecessary action scene and it also demonstrates the film's unpleasantly callous attitude to human life. Minor characters are slaughtered left, right and centre in this film in the nastiest ways - hey, it's no big deal, they aren't the stars. The British slimeball from the last film (Jack Davenport) pops up again for no good reason and the new British slimeball adds little to the story, though you do have to marvel at the way the writers have shoehorned a fashionable anti-corporate message into an 18th century costume adventure.
(4) Most exasperatingly, Dead Man's Chest doesn't have an ending; it just stops after two and a half hours and expects us to wait for Pirates III: At World's End, due next May, to see what happens next. There's no climax to speak of. Nothing is resolved. I suppose the film-makers would like me to write that it "ends on a cliffhanger" but that isn't really the case. When Back To The Future Part II and The Empire Strikes Back ended on cliffhangers, they did so after telling satisfying stories that stood on their own. This one tells half a story and asks us to pay again to find out how it ends. That's nothing less than a rip-off.
What good things can I say about Dead Man's Chest? The production values are superb - well, it's a Jerry Bruckheimer production so that's a given. The special effects team does deserve special praise though: the design of Davy Jones and his crew is eye-popping. An almost unrecognisible Bill Nighy (putting on a thick Scottish accent) makes a splendid villain - Davy Jones is a man-shaped thing with the head of a squid and the limbs of a crab. A couple of his crew stick in my mind too: the hammerhead first mate and the lobster-man who keeps getting decapitated.
The film is for the most part well acted. Johnny Depp is still a delight as the Keith Richards-inspired pirate, although the novelty is gone. Jack Sparrow was a bold creation first time around, now he's just Depp doing a turn. Keira Knightley is still ravishing to look at but she's wasted here - Elizabeth is an afterthought this time around. Orlando Bloom is Orlando Bloom, love him or hate him. Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg again provide decent comic relief. Besides Bill Nighy, the most impressive newcomer is Stellan Skarsgård, who plays Will's undead father, Bootstrap Bill. He gives the movie its only dose of human emotion. While Naomie Harris is mainly there to provide exposition, she does it with some panache.
The actors are good but Gore Verbinski's direction is bludgeoning. With Pirates I, he showed a nice, light tough. This time it's as if he's trying to bully you into enjoying yourself. He keeps the decibel level punishingly loud throughout, the actors constantly shouting and the undistinguished Hans Zimmer score booming almost without pause. He beats every action sequence into the ground. When he comes up with something fresh and fun, like the bit with the giant wheel, he doesn't build on it and he lets it go on forever (imagine what Spielberg or Jackie Chan might have done with that wheel). Add Verbinksi's manic direction to a weak script with a cheat of an ending and the result is an action blockbuster that's noisy, long and expensive but dismayingly short on fun.