I'll presume that everyone who might conceivably want to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest has done so already, given the incredible sum of money it has already taken in. I'd take this moment to complain about the nature of the Hollywood marketing beast that can turn anything into the Hit Film of the Summer just by throwing a lot of posters around, but I plunked down my $10 just like everyone else to be a part of that $132 million pile, so it would be disingenuous and hypocritical.

And because you've seen the film, it obviates me from having to explain what it's about. But the rules of discourse compel me to make a bare-bones plot description: a little while after the events of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) must find Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), now a prisoner on a cannibal island, to save themselves from the vicious Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), a power-mad nobleman. Jack in turn is on the run from a debt he owes to the ghost pirate Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his crew of crustaceo-humans, and prepares to use Will and Elizabeth for his own ends.

Problem #1: here is a pirate movie with a plot that can't be summed up in ten words.

The first Pirates of the Caribbean remains one of my favorite modern blockbusters, largely because of its simplicity: pirates. Oh, wait, cursed zombie pirates! Everything about it is a throwback, in the best possible sense, to the classic pirate films of the '30s and '40s, starring the likes of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. Guns and cutlasses, pillaging, sailing, rum - all good fun stuff. And to top it off, Johnny Depp's fantastically loopy performance as Jack Sparrow, Keith Richards as a drag queen, one of the most surprising and I daresay brave film performances in memory (according to legend, Disney brass were so worried about Depp's unorthodox characterization that they considered, briefly, shelving the project). It was good goofy fun, if unmistakably bloated.

Dead Man's Chest commits many minor sins, but the chief one is this: it's much, much less fun. At some point, writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio decided that if they were going to have a trilogy on their hands, they'd damn well better make it an Epic Trilogy, and so this film suffers from too much scope, if such a thing exists - it strives so mightily to include as many locations as possible, and as many characters and monsters and legends as possible, that it chokes on its own backstory before too long.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the character who made the very idea of a trilogy imaginable - Jack Sparrow. In the original, he was some sort of alien force invading the world of a pirate movie, and it worked beyond anyone's dreams. But something terrible and inevitable happened: in the first film, Depp played a character written normally. In the second film, the character has been written to Depp's performance. What precisely this does to Depp as an actor, I cannot say; but the character is so much less amusing, so much flatter, so much more cartoonish (almost literally, in some scenes: he seems beholden to the same rules of physics as Wile E. Coyote). Still, there are flashes of the original brilliance of the character, and that's why it's such a disappointment that he's considerably less prominent than in the first film, replaced by the unwieldy machinations of plot.

All of which, by the way, adds up to nothing. The whole film plays like the first act of its sequel. Which gives me some hope for that film (currently titled At World's End, and that takes the hope away again), but doesn't change the fact that ultimately, there is no closure here and in a way, nothing happens. I can point to Back to the Future, Part II or The Empire Strikes Back as obvious examples of an unexpected sequel that laid ground for a trilogy while at the same time possessing a distinct and complete internal plotline. Nothing like that here.

There is some good to be found here and there. For one thing, while it's still too long, it's not nearly so bloated as the first. No wait, I can be nicer.

The opening half-hour, the adventure of Cannibal Island, may be completely disconnected from the rest of the plot (okay, so there's no "may be" about it: it most certainly is), and it may suffer from ethnography that's also a throwback to the cinema of the 1930s, but it's hard to deny that the action going on here is a lot of fun. Indeed, this is the only part of the film where Depp feels like he's channeling the first film. A later action setpiece, a three-way sword fight on a mill wheel, is also successful, although there are a couple of specific camera shots (the ones spinning with the wheel) that really bothered me.

The acting, Depp excluded, is across-the-board better than before. In Orlando Bloom's case, I think this is because he knows what he's doing now, and in Keira Knightley's, because she's been given more interesting things. The best work in the film, though - over Depp, even - is Bill Nighy as Davy Jones. His body has been completely covered by CGI, giving him an octopus head and crab claws, but there is still an unmistakable Nighy-ness to the curl of his synthetic lip or the ironically cocked eyebrow. And like Depp in the first film, Nighy understands that the key to this kind of film is not taking it seriously, and so his Jones drawls and bobs like a drunken...every other Bill Nighy role.

So, that's the blockbuster film of 2006. I have hope that its sequel will be better. If nothing else, I hope it will be a pirate movie, and not an island-hopping story of ghosts and monsters and legends. The return of a certain character from the first film, presaged in this film's final shot, gives me hope that such will be the case.

And hey, while I'm wishing, a running time under two hours might be nice, too.


Reviews in this series
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Verbinski, 2003)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Verbinski, 2006)
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (Verbinski, 2007)
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Marshall, 2011)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (RΓΈnning & Sandberg, 2017)