Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest' (2006)
Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.
Following the surprise success of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, there was suddenly high demand for a sequel to a movie that really leaves no obvious avenue for following up. Instead of creating another self-contained adventure for Johnny Depp's breakout character Captain Jack Sparrow and his crew, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and director Gore Verbinski concoct an elaborate, practically incomprehensible two-movie epic that attempts to turn a fun adventure movie based on a theme-park ride into a grand fantasy universe on par with The Lord of the Rings. Financially, the bid paid off, with the second and third Pirates movies, beginning with Dead Man's Chest, raking in tons of money at the box office. But watching both movies feels like a chore, a slog through endless plot and more dull romantic swooning in order to get to the meager good stuff.
That good stuff is still mostly Depp's amusing performance, which by Dead Man's Chest is already growing a bit tired but is still good for a few laughs. Less successful is the effort to add some dimensions to Jack, whose role as comic relief and plot mover in The Curse of the Black Pearl is expanded here to capitalize on his popularity. The cliffhanger at the end hinges on the question of whether Jack is willing to make a noble sacrifice for his crew and friends, and the entire plot is set into motion by a deal that Jack made years ago and is now attempting to get out of. That deal comes courtesy of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), who's the movie's main villain even though it takes him an hour to show up onscreen.
Jones and his crew (on the fabled ship the Flying Dutchman) are triumphs of design and special effects, each one a sort of mutant hybrid between humans and various sea creatures (although they're simply another crew of undead pirates to replace the villainous crew of undead pirates in the last movie). Verbinksi takes advantage of the large budget with plenty of great-looking effects, sets and costume design, along with some big action set pieces (although there's only one major sea battle between ships). As good as the movie looks, though, the narrative is still full of tiresome twists and detours; an entire segment devoted to Jack and his crew kidnapped by cannibals (depicted with questionable cultural sensitivity) has no bearing on the overall story and could have been cut altogether.
Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom both spend significant portions of the movie captured and imprisoned by various forces, and the main motivation for their involvement in the Davy Jones storyline disappears about halfway through the movie. Delivering a fake-out that hints at a romance between Jack and Knightley's Elizabeth Swann (and giving Depp and Knightley an uncomfortable kiss) is one of the movie's most shameless ploys. After two and a half hours, nothing is even close to being resolved, and the filmmakers trot out Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa to prime the audience for the next movie in place of any genuine forward momentum.