A film review by Craig J. Koban
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST
2006, PG-13, 152 mins.
Johnny Depp: Captain Jack Sparrow / Orlando Bloom:
Will Turner / Keira Knightly:
Elizabath Swann / Jack Davenport:
Norrington / Bill Nighy:
Davy Jones / Jonathan Pryce:
Gore Verbinski / Written by
Ted Elliot and terry Rossio
Johnny Depp: Captain Jack Sparrow / Orlando Bloom: Will Turner / Keira Knightly: Elizabath Swann / Jack Davenport: Norrington / Bill Nighy: Davy Jones / Jonathan Pryce: Governor Swann
Directed by Gore Verbinski / Written by Ted Elliot and terry Rossio
Not too long ago there was a time when I was beginning to think that the modern Hollywood machine could sink no lower into the creative well for inspiration to make a new film. Just about every avenue has been exploited for good measure in hopes of achieving financial success. Certainly, I have been forced to endure remakes of classic films, remakes of classic TV shows, and now there seems to be a movement to appropriate video games to the big screen.
Just when I thought that the suits that run the business were not completely bereft of innovative ideas, then came 2003's PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL.
The astonishing thing about that auctioneer is the fact that I had such decidedly low expectations for it. I mean, it was being produced by the master of intellectually bankrupted, cinematic sleaze (Jerry Bruckheimer), it had pirates as its subject matter (usually box office poison), and it was based upon – of all things – a very famous Disneyland theme park ride. I have been to Disneyland three times and had a most agreeable time going on the original PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN ride. To a young tyke, it was quite thrilling. My adult hindsight later kicked into overdrive, especially when I heard that a film was being made based on the ride. Honestly, a movie based on a Disney attraction? Please.
Yet, THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL was an enjoyable romp and an entertaining picture. It went on to become one of the biggest sleeper hits on recent memory, raking in over $300 million dollars at the North American box office, proving that seafaring pirates could, in fact, be chic. PIRATES was, by no means, a perfect adventure thriller. It was laboriously paced (at nearly two and a half hours, it was around 30-45 minutes too long for its own good), had a murky and convoluted storyline, but its spirit and whimsical energy was always in abundance. It was light as a feather, funny, more that just a little goofy at times, and had a rollicking sense of adventure. In essence, it was steeped in the long-standing tradition of pirate stories, ones involving vast ocean vessels, talking parrots, a wealth of men wearing eye patches, people walking the plank, sword fights, dark and murky caverns and caves, strange unexplored lands, and – most crucially – buried treasure.
More than anything, the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film worked primarily because of its Oscar nominated performance by Johnny Depp. You may recall that he played Captain Jack Sparrow, who I think has emerged as one of the more imaginative and memorable film characters of the last little while. To watch Depp parade around foppishly as Sparrow is to see an actor truly inhabiting a character. He played homage to the conventions of most pirate characters while throwing a lot of them out the door. His pirate was – arguably – one of the most flamboyant, androgynous, goofy, and eccentric ever to grace the screen. He crafted such a vigorous and original persona. He played Sparrow like a weird and cocky cross between a drag queen, a puck rocker, and a heavily decaffeinated Keith Richards. He never played the role particularly straight but instead embodied in it a strange sense of otherworldly strangeness. That’s the key to this unique creation. Jack Sparrow emerges as such a wonderfully colorfully and enigmatic hero. He is appropriately mischievous, ruthless, cunning, laughably inept, and clumsy all at the same time. Many times while watching the film you were kind of left wondering whether he was a figure to be cheered, booed, laugh at or laughed with. This, of course, is a testament to Depp’s layered and nuanced performance, which very deservedly received its Academy Award nomination.
Now, since the first PIRATES was such an unlikely hit and with both Walt Disney Pictures and Bruckheimer behind the gauntlet, a sequel (or sequels) seemed absolutely unavoidable. So, we now have the first of two proposed sequels, the terrifically and evocatively subtitled DEAD MAN’S CHEST, which carries on relatively after the events of the first film. The cast has all returned for another voyage, the director (Gore Verbinski) and the writers (Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio) have also returned to the helm and this time all the makers involved have done something that seems in vogue these days. Instead of shooting one sequel, they devised two sequels that were shot back to back and will be released within a short time of one another (the same was done for THE BACK TO THE FUTURE sequels, as well as for the more recent LORD OF THE RINGS and MATRIX films). Also, like many other middle films in a trilogy, DEAD MAN’S CHEST ends on an ominous cliff-hanger which basically necessitates all those interested to return to the cineplexes in 2007 for the follow-up, AT WORLD’S END. For that reason, DEAD MAN’S CHEST is a film that may feel like somewhat of a cheat and could disappoint those expecting a self-contained feature.
Nevertheless, DEAD MAN’S CHEST chronicles and continues the stories of the main characters from the first one. It seems that pirate-born Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is about to marry the love of his life, Elizabeth Swann (the always luminous and fetching Keira Knightly), but before they can sail off on their honeymoon they are abruptly arrested. The charge: aiding and abetting the escape of the most wanted and disreputable pirate of them all, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) is the man that acts as a springboard for the arrests and wants to use both Elizabeth and Will as bait, of sorts. He also wants to cut them a deal. If they agree to assist him, he will make sure that the two will never do any real time behind bars.
It is here where the plot starts to take a turn towards convoluted and confusing waters. Beckett wants the pair to locate Sparrow and retrieve a very special compass that he has in his possession. Just what is so special about this compass, you ask? Well, it’s a magic compass that will take anyone with it to a mysterious treasure. It is Will that goes on first and he does, in fact, find Sparrow, but unfortunately gets captured by a band of viscous cannibals that actually worship Sparrow like some sort of God wearing lots of eyeliner. Needless to say, both Will and Sparrow manage to escape the native tribe before they become their supper and depart on The Black Pearl, Sparrow's vessel.
Jack also seems to be looking for the mysterious treasure that Lord Beckett is after, but he needs a very special key. Beyond Beckett and Sparrow there is the infamous Davy Jones (the wonderful Bill Nighy) – a creature that looks like a humanoid squid with tentacles for a beard – who also wants to get hold of the treasure chest. Jones also controls The Kraken, a gigantic beast that resides under water that is so large that it can literally swallow up entire ships whole. Eventually, it soon becomes a three-way race of sorts involving all of the participants to find the chest. Elizabeth also manages to escape Beckett’s captivity (she miraculously stows away on a ship as a man, despite the fact that she makes the least plausible looking male pirate ever) and meets up with Will and Sparrow as they all try to thwart off Jones and get to the chest before he does. Sparrow seems to have a real personal stake in his quest, for if he fails he just may have to join Jones’ crew in the haunted afterlife. What’s a pirate to do?
On a negative side, DEAD MAN’S CHEST is a film that is more of an elongated audience endurance test than it should have been. At over two and a half hours long, it’s kind of frustrating to see how Verbinski and company allow this adventure to suffer from the same editing and narrative pacing problems that plagued the first PIRATES film. DEAD MAN’S CHEST, along with CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, owe their energy and spunk to adventure serials, the works of Errol Flynn, and to the action packed and oftentimes silly B-grade action films of yesteryear. At 90-100 minutes, both of these PIRATE films could have been lean and mean adventure yarns. Yet, at 150 minutes-plus, DEAD MAN’S CHEST sort of feels like two sequels crammed into the same movie.
The story itself is muddled and confusing. The film languishes around in exposition for a long time before the action grabs for our attention, and I never really left the film with a firm grasp as to the overall story, how characters related to one another, and so forth. Lord Beckett’s character is established as an icy cold antagonist early on and then is forgotten for nearly the rest of the film, and the search for the so-called “Dead Man's Chest” is bewildering. As to what the contents are supposed to do, why they are important, and why everyone wants it seems baffling and a bit too ill defined. Innocuous and silly pirate films should not be this confusing.
Nevertheless, the film’s set design, much like the previous entry, is spectacular. I liked the look of the island of the cannibals and Verbinski definitely knows how to shoot these films with an appropriate level of dark and shadowy haze. I also liked the design of the ships and villains themselves. Davy Jones is a wicked invention and a masterstroke creation of advanced CGI effects. Nighy gives a gravel voiced sinister edge to the villain, but I was really transfixed with the artifice behind the character. Throughout the film I was unsure if whether (a) I was watching a completely computer generated character or (b) the actor himself with CG-alterations. Regardless, Jones is a marvelous creation and a sight to behold, as is his crew, which is a relatively smorgasbord of half-man, half-fish personnel. DEAD MAN'S CHEST easily deserves comparisons with recent special effects heavy pictures, like the STAR WARS prequels and THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, for containing truly involving and convincing visions. No other film this year thus far can touch this film's advanced technological wizardry.
DEAD MAN’S CHEST also does not disappoint with its action set pieces. Some are memorable and rousing and inspire genuine awe (as is the case with couple of awesome scenes involving the Kraten attacking a couple of ships), whereas others have a sort of slapstick resourcefulness that inspires sly giggles. I especially appreciated a daring swordfight montage that mostly takes place on a perpetually rotating, giant water wheel (Buster Keaton would have been proud) and an equally funny sequence involving the heroes trying to outrun the cannibals while still in their spherical cages. As with CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, this new PIRATES feature is robust, rousing, daft, and has a goofy and irreverent sense of fun. The film brings a considerable amount of joyous spontaneity to individual moments, something that other big summer popcorn films (i.e. SUPERMAN RETURNS) was seriously lacking.
More than anything, DEAD MAN’S CHEST is - despite its weak story and stiff and lackluster narrative thrust - a real pleasure to watch primarily for Sparrow himself, and Depp once again wears Captain Jack like a glove. Considering how sequels go. Depp has thankfully lost none of his swaggering and kooky charisma. His character has a charm on the level of other daring rogues – ala Han Solo and Indiana Jones – but what separates him from those two creations is his sense of peculiar and amoral detachment. Sparrow is not a straight-arrow protagonist and often does things that lead you to question his loyalties. Even when he behaves rather oddly, there’s always an edge underneath is wacky façade. Faring less effectively are Bloom and Knightly, who both have liveliness in their performances, but never emerge as wonderfully crafted and evocative creations like Sparrow. Yet, they don't really matter because they are primarily window dressing to frame around Jack's wild antics. Make no mistake about it; Depp owns these films.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST is a sequel marred with some very troubling faults (the most obvious one being it’s overstuffed and water logged plot and painfully long running time), but as a modestly worthy successor to an equally flawed, but entertaining, CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, it more or less delivers on its own self-prescribed status quo. These films – at face value – have never really worked as compelling stories (which have never elevated above the level of being wildly uneven), but they do work on a level of exciting playfulness. That latter category can most easily be attributed to Depp’s triumphant return as the hilarious Jack Sparrow, whose semi-inebriated mannerisms and penchant for being a daft and deliriously peculiar screen presence always makes DEAD MAN'S CHEST stay afloat. I guess it’s somewhat of a shame that a great character like Sparrow can’t find a great story to inhabit. Alas, this newest Pirate adventure excites, entertains and, more times than not, leaves a little grin on your face. As far as summer escapism goes, this film is a breezy adventure that never walks the dreaded plank. Yargh!
ON STRANGER TIDES (2011) 1/2
And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the PIRATES series:
1. AT WORLD'S END (2007) 1/2
CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL
3. DEAD MAN'S CHEST (2006)
4. ON STRANGER TIDES (2011) 1/2