Pirates of the Caribbean returns to theaters for more summer swashbuckling, only they may have forgotten to buckle their swash. The sequel is subtitled Dead Man’s Chest, and pits the incomparable Captain Jack Sparrow against the owner of that chest, Davy Jones. You may remember him from his locker, and as a founding member of The Monkees.
Unlike his modern pop-culture counterpart this fishy Davy Jones is a decent musician, and he rolls across the Earth’s oceans in a ghostly galleon capturing souls and playing a mean pipe organ. In the last movie Captain Jack got his beloved ship the Black Pearl back, but now he may have to give her up. Davy Jones and his crustacean encrusted crew of the damned are out to get him. Jack owes Davy a debt, having promised him his soul in exchange for the captaincy of a certain black-sailed pirate ship.
The centerpiece of a successful Pirates movie must be Johnny Depp, and he’s back doing his drunken, rock and roll pirate thing. Jack is actually less interesting this time around. He’s not doing anything new, simply repeating the performance we’ve seen already. Well not exactly. He’s less of a scoundrel, probably because he’s too busy flailing his arms around and running to get down to good old-fashioned skullduggery. That’s the story for most of the movie, beloved characters from Curse of the Black Pearl running around being chased, trampled, and rolled down hills. Where the last movie had piracy, fencing, gun battles, and drunken singing; Dead Man’s Chest has CGI beasties and lots of screaming.
The film feels forced, as director Gore Verbinski struggles mightily to up the ante for his sequel, only to miss out on a lot of what made the original so fun in the first place. I’m not sure Verbinski quite gets it. All we want is hefty dose of swinging swordplay and a lot of Jack Sparrow. Where’s the sword fighting? The pillaging? Drunken romps with hideous women? Curse of the Black Pearl did an excellent job of balancing the supernatural with the film’s simpler pleasures of pirates just being pirates. When CGI was used to show off some creepy ghoul it was done beautifully, almost as an aside to the story rather than as a centerpiece. Here the oversized effects are the focus with the film’s now less interesting characters left with no choice but to jostle for space around them. Is this a pirate movie or are we watching a sea voyaging remake of Ghostbusters?
Though the movie falls a little too in love with its big effects budget, at least the effects are rather good. Davy Jones in particular is a masterfully realized featured creature. Half-squid, half man, he oozes and wheezes across the deck of his ship the Flying Dutchman with an air of inevitability. Jones hasn’t the screen presence of Geoffrey Rush’s iconic Captain Barbosa from the first film, but Bill Nighy does a remarkable job buried under thick, viscous layers of CGI.
Despite its flaws a lot of people are probably really going to enjoy Dead Man's Chest, and for those who don't the good news here is that they’ve got another movie to get it right. This is the first of two Pirates movies filmed simultaneously, and like so many other trilogy tweeners Dead Man’s Chest is more of a setup than a complete movie. Even as a sort of hum-drum, overlong tweener this second one isn’t a total waste. Most of the best moments are references back to the last movie, but Captain Jack has one or two familiarly brilliant spasms mixed in with his excessive running and the rest of the cast seems poised to do something big in the next sequel. They just don’t do it in this one. Pirates 2 isn’t bad enough to be disappointment even if it doesn’t live up to the fun of its predecessor. I still have high hopes for the third one and if Verbinski figures things out in the editing room, then Dead Man’s Chest will likely end up being remembered as something akin to Back to the Future II.