Sunday, July 09, 2006

Why is the rum always gone?

In the opening minutes of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, a character mentions the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow, and I found myself snickering with anticipatory glee. The smartest thing about Dead Man's Chest is that it presents the perpetually off-balance Sparrow (Johnny Depp) as not only a comic figure but also a full-blown romantic hero. Depp's creation has become an icon among adolescent girls, his braided, leathery profile tacked above countless beds. The former teen heartthrob has clearly tapped into something here; I can't say exactly what it is, but if the young Regal Cinemas employee I saw lovingly caressing Depp's face on a Pirates standee is any indication, it sure is potent. Dead Man's Chest, like the first film, relies on Depp's performance for its success, and while the filmmakers have delivered a sequel overstuffed with state-of-the-art effects and grandiose action setpieces, its greatest pleasures arise from its star's perfect delivery of a line as simple as "Oh, bugger."

The overcomplicated plot follows Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) as he attempts to retrieve Jack's compass to save his betrothed, Elizabeth. This leads to the matter of a key, and the titular chest, which belongs to Davey Jones (Bill Nighy), the tentacled captain of the Flying Dutchman, to whom Jack must repay a blood debt or else face an eternity of servitude. Factor in the return of every forgettable character from the first film, the addition of voodoo priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) and Will's barnacled father Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), a visit to a cannibal island, and the vague involvement of the Dutch East India Company, and it all adds up to a lumbering, plot-heavy contraption. And that's not even factoring in the Kraken.

While the first film was meandering, Dead Man's Chest often stops dead in its tracks to marvel at its own costly production values. And while Gore Verbinski is a talented visual director, the results are often monotonous. There are some thrilling moments in Dead Man's Chest (the Raiders-esque water wheel bit, and everything involving the Kraken), but there's also a strain here that wasn't present in the first film, as though the filmmakers are trying to hard to make an epic out of a film series that is, after all, based on a ride. The final scenes of the film hint at a potentially thrilling third installment, but for all the noise, very little actually happens in Dead Man's Chest; it exists mostly as setup for a payoff that we've yet to see (echoes of The Matrix Reloaded? I hope not).

That's not to say there isn't a lot of fun to be had here. As with the first film, Dead Man's Chest's saving grace is that it never takes itself too seriously. Orlando Bloom is typically boring, but then, so is his character, and the film develops his relationship with Elizabeth in a way that wryly acknowledges this (let's hope that the third film puts Knightley's considerable comic talents, seen in Pride and Prejudice, to greater use). Bill Nighy brings his wry delivery to the fearsome Davey Jones, and the effects artists do a magnificent job of turning Jones and his crew into a belivably waterlogged gang of creepy creatures. And then there's Depp, who alternates rock-star swagger with fey charm. The film gives Jack Sparrow plenty of room to roam, and while Dead Man's Chest is remarkably free of any subtext, there remains the question of the strange effect the Captain has on women young and old. It's gratifying to see Depp finally get the sort of rabid attention that should have met Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, William Blake, Hunter S. Thompson, and countless other roles - America has finally caught up to one of its greatest actors.

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