There are so many things that are right with Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest that it seems a shame not to be able to rank it as high as his first film (in what will ultimately be a trilogy), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The problem is perhaps less with what Dead Man’s Chest is than with what it isn’t — and the biggest thing it isn’t is surprising.
When the original film appeared in 2003, few — if any — were exactly thrilled by the prospect of seeing it. Verbinski had two pretty lame film credits — Mousehunt and The Mexican — and one really good one — The Ring, none of which suggested an affinity for a large scale action picture. Then there was the name Jerry Bruckheimer attached to the film in the producer capacity. Since Bruckheimer personifies the three Bs of moviedom — big, bad and bloated — this was no cause for joy.
Worse, it was a movie based on a theme park ride, which not only seemed like a bad idea, but, in essence, was a bad idea (see: The Country Bears (2002) and The Haunted Mansion (2003)). The only thing that could possibly have lowered expectations would have been the prospect of It’s a Small World: the Movie. (Blessedly, this has yet to happen, though such is my faith in Disney that I am sure it will take place one day — possibly via some Luciferian pact involving Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks.)
The surprise then was that the first Pirates was an unqualified delight — a delicious confection built around a brilliant Johnny Depp characterization and filmmaking that proved that The Ring was no fluke. No such surprise awaited us this round. Instead, we expected something special. And what we got is special in its own right. Certainly, it’s miles ahead of everything else that’s bombarded us in the guise of summer blockbusters this year. Compared to Mission: Impossible III, Poseidon, X-Men 3 and Superman Returns, this is Citizen Kane territory.
You can’t really fault Dead Man’s Chest for being the middle film in a series. The fact that it ultimately exists to lay the groundwork for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is no great sin. Has anyone ever complained that Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold is nothing but the setup for the three operas that follow? No, of course not. The reason is simple — it may be two-and-a-half hours of setup, but Das Rheingold is two-and-a-half hours of darn good setup with a lot of amazing things in it. Pretty much the same can be said of Dead Man’s Chest, even though it ranks a bit lower than Mr. Wagner’s work on the culture-o-meter. And if, like the opera in question, there’s a tendency toward being a little long-winded, that’s perhaps a trade-off you have to make for the wonderful things it contains.
There certainly are many wonderful things to behold in Dead Man’s Chest — and they don’t all center around Depp’s flawlessly engaging recreation of his most popular role, Capt. Jack Sparrow. Not to sell Depp short — his performance is what sold the first film and it’s what keeps this one together — but there are other factors at work; such as, the assured touch Gore Verbinski brings to the proceedings. First of all, his horror film cred from The Ring worked well in the darker scenes of the first film with Capt. Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) and the dead crew, and it pays dividends here in his straight-faced handling of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his ghastly crew. Should Verbinski ever decide to make a film version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, he would undoubtedly give us a classic of horror. Verbinski also understands the need for inherent logic in the staging of action scenes. You will find no flurry of rapidly edited close-ups of incomprehensible activity that passes for action these days here. Rather, Verbinski offers coherently staged action set-pieces that recall the work of Buster Keaton. Add to this fantastic production design (Davy Jones’ lair alone is worth the price of admission), flawless effects work, and a terrific score by Hans Zimmer that expands on his already terrific score for the first film. It’s a recipe for a fine time at the movies.
The supporting roles are a little spotty on occasion. There’s a sense that Keira Knightley and especially Orlando Bloom are here mostly because they were in the first film. Knightley fares better than Bloom, but neither is especially remarkable next to the more colorful characters. Bringing in Bill Nighy as Davy Jones was a masterstroke, as was adding Naomie Harris (28 Days Later…) as the voodoo priestess Tia Dalma.
The film does have flaws to be sure — most notably, it’s too long and it tries too hard. And then there is its biggest sin, its lack of the unexpected. But putting its excessive length aside, its predictability -stems from the film’s insistence on trying to meet the expectations born of the original. Nowhere is this more evident than in the introduction of Jack Sparrow. Remember his entrance from the original — just effortlessly stepping from a sinking boat onto the dock as if this had been his plan all along? That was a moment of sheer bliss. Here they try to top it, and while it’s not a bad moment, it’s all too obviously a calculated one. The effortlessness is gone even if the cleverness remains. But that’s the worst of the film’s sins.
As far as its nonclimactic climax that leads to the final chapter in the story, I really can’t imagine a better ending — certainly not a better image — than the one chosen. It may not be surprising, but it’s something as good or better, because it’s right and it’s what we want. Asking for more seems a bit much. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of adventure violence, including frightening images.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke