Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Gore Verbinski's “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest,” the sequel to the 2003 smash hit that grossed close to $700 million worldwide, is a summer popcorn movie par excellence, always playful, almost always inventive, and seldom boring, somber, or self-important in the way that the other big summer movie, Bryan Singer's “Superman Returns,” is.

Not meant to be taken seriously, “Dead Man's Chest” never even tries to pass as anything more than a movieish adventure, though it takes about one reel for the real fun to begin. Like Singer's movie, I doubt if it's necessary for this saga to have a two-and-a-half-hour running time. That said, you'll have a good time with an imaginative picture, replete of dazzling visual effects, that could be enjoyed by both children and adults.

The new “Pirates” reenergizes a genre that has long been dormant in American film: the sea action-adventure-swashbuckling picture that many of us still associate with Douglas Fairbanks's 1926 silent “The Black Pirate,” Errol Flynn's Warner adventures of seven decades ago, Burt Lancaster's in the 1950s with a movie like Robert Siodmak's “The Crimosn Pirate,” and “The Buccaneer” (1958) with Yul Brynner.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the new “Pirates” movies is that they almost erase the bad taste left for a long time after Roman Polanksi's huge failure, the 1986 “Pirates,” not to mention Geena Davis's vehicle, the 1995 mega-flop “Cutthroat Island,” both of which were embarrassing and unenjoyable.

With the public getting more sophisticated and savvy in terms of its knowledge of moviemaking, both about the behind and in front of the camera, and with attention span that's getting shorter and shorter, Verbinski's approach may be the only way to do a “Pirates” movie these days. After all, the very concept of the pirate as a protagonist is archaic and, as a character, he doesn't have the built-in charm that some of our other comic-strip heroes (“Spider-Man” for example) and the recognized literary source to draw on, like the “Superman” flicks.

The new movie boasts plenty of talent, in front and behind the cameras. It's co-written by Ted Elliott and Tery Rossio, who also scripted the first film, and claim to their credit “Shrek” and “Aladdin.” The brilliant production design is by Rick Heinrichs, who garnered an Oscar for “Sleepy Hollow,” which also starred Depp. The visual effects are supervised by John Knoll, Oscar-nominee for “Star Wars: Episodes I and II, and Bill George, Oscar winner for “Innerspace” and Oscar nominee for “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

In this swashbuckling follow-up, the eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow is caught up in another tangled web of supernatural intrigue. Though the curse of the Black Pearl has been lifted, an even more terrifying threat looms over its captain and scurvy crew: It turns out that Jack owes a blood debt to the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), Ruler of the Ocean Depths, who captains the ghostly Flying Dutchman, which no other ship can match in speed and stealth.

Unless the ever-crafty Jack figures a cunning way out of this Faustian pact, he will be cursed to an afterlife of eternal servitude and damnation in the services of Jones. This startling development interrupts the wedding plans of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, who once again find themselves thrust into Jack's misadventures, leading to escalating confrontations with sea monsters and very unfriendly islanders.

Give credit where it's due: With charm and originality, Johnny Depp has made Captain Jack Sparrow the only iconic screen character to have yet emerged out of the new millennium. As in the first picture, Depp's Jack is the ducking, weaving, highly superstitious pirate captain of dubious morality and personal hygiene, but one that shows more interest in romance than before.

The writers have taken advantage of an underused character in American cinema, the trickster. As played by Depp, he's a wild man who's not particularly good at avoiding getting caught. Captain Jack knows that if he can just bide his time, eventually the world will come over to his side, and that gives himand us viewers–supreme confidence that he can handle just about any situation.

This sage piles one improbable situation after another, and Depp either handles them or escapes them with panache that would make Errol Flynn proud. According to legend, whoever possesses the Dead Man's Chest gains control of Davy Jones. Lord Cutler Beckett intends to use this awesome power to destroy every last pirate of the Caribbean once and for all. Times are changing on the high seas, with businessmen and bureaucrats becoming the true pirates, and freewheeling, fun-loving buccaneers like Jack and his crew threatened with extinction.

Captain Jack Sparrow is joined by a roistering shipload of characters that are both new and familiar. Among the new characters, you'll find: Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), a flamboyant soothsayer; Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgaard), Will Turner's long-lost father, who appears out of nowhere; and Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), ruthless pirate hunter of the East India Trading Company, who sets his sights on retrieving the fabled “Dead Man's Chest.”

And some of the first film's characters are gone, such as Captain Barbossa (played by Aussie Geoffrey Rush), the fourth member of the original quartet, who, you may recall, was dispatched to the underworld by Jack Sparrow at the climax of the 2003 movie.

Rather shrewdly, “Dead Man's Chest” puts aside the romance between Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, because the filmmakers know that it's rather boring. Moreover, the writers have gone out of their way to keep the lovers apart (a subplot that can't be revealed here), because once the couple is reunited, their story has nowhere to go. In this segment, Jack Sparrow, Will and Elizabeth form a most peculiar romantic triangle, one marked by erotic tension between Jack and the feisty Elizabeth. Just watch the endless preparations, steps, and missteps that it takes for the two to have a single kiss!

Like the first movie, “Dead Man's Chest” continues to update some of the characters. Traditionally, the action-adventure genre has done very little for women, but no more. Elizabeth is conceived as a new type of heroine, as brave, feisty, and cool as the men, both heroes and villains; just watch Keira Kneightly sword, fight, and run. Unlike the passive Lois Lane (which actress Kate Bosworth makes even more passive) in “Superman Returns,” who is a variation of the damsel in distress, Elizabeth is decidedly not the lady-in-waiting.

Since the first movie, all three lead actors have gained stature, popularity, and Oscar nominations, too. As Will Turner, British heartthrob Orlando Bloom, has since appeared in the last segment of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which swept the 2003 Oscars, and “Kingdom of Heaven.” Young and beautiful Keira Knightley, who returns to the second installment in the role of Elizabeth Swann, was nominated last year for the Best Actress Oscar in “Pride & Prejudice,” and proved her considerable technical skills in “Domino.”

Ultimately, though, the series belong to the multi-gifted Depp, as the decidedly eccentric Jack Sparrow, caught up in another tangled web of supernatural intrigues. Depp is now a two time-Oscar nominee, for the first “Pirate” in 2003 as well as for “Finding Neverland,” a year later, in which he played “Peter Pan” creator, J. M. Barrie.

With the “Pirates” movies, Depp has instantaneously created an authentic screen icon, embraced by the entire world. Watching this yarn, I notice a trick that John Wayne was known for, namely to have a great entre into the story. In a typical Wayne picture, the other characters staged his entrance by talking about his character (how big or how strong or how mysterious he is), thus raising viewers' expectations for that moment.

Similarly, the writers have orchestrated a number of exuberant and theatrical entrances (and exits) for Jack Sparrow, and Depp takes advantage of each one of them, often appearing out of nowhere, or disappearing just when he is needed the most. The ending, of course, prepares the ground for the third installment, which has already been shot and is in the can for a 2008 release.

I was also impressed with that talented British actor, Bill Nighy, as Davy Jones, the villain to end all villains. The film's only pale performance is given by another talented Brit, the usually reliable Jonathan Pryce, as Weatherby Swann, which I think is a function of the writing.

Though there's virtually no change in Penny Rose's costumes for Jack Sparrow, if you pay attention, you'll notice some objects and ornaments that the actor has added to his now-established iconic appearance. (See interview with Depp).

The locations and sets designed by Rick Heinrichs offer “Dead Man's Chest” with vastly scaled and richly imaginative backdrops, not to mention a small fleet of new ships, including a redesigned, rebuilt and fully seaworthy Black Pearl, Davy Jones' magnificently detailed and terrifying Flying Dutchman; and the 18th century British merchant ship, Edinburgh Trader.

In one of the film's many highlights, which is a bravura of stunt work, there's a three-way swordfight between Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and James Norrington on a huge runaway mill wheel. It's one of the most dazzling and complex sequences yet seen in an adventure film. Adding to the bravura of this remarkably complex sequence are heavy coconuts that drop from 100-foot-tall palms.

A sequence in the Pelegoso village, in which Jack Sparrow confronts and “handles” hundred of villagers, rumored to be played by members of the Kalinago Nation, may be too long, but you will be impressed by the wildly painted and tattooed natives who are accessorized in a highly inventive combo of primitive designs laced with a mordant sense of humor.

The invented language that they speak, called “Umshoko,” is a mixture of Pig Latin and English words spelled backwards, credited to UCLA linguist Peter Ladefogend and dialect coach Carla Meyer. Like everything else that Depp does, when he speaks this dialect, it's hilariously funny. Hence, “Rah rah rah fi fi” means “big, big, big fire.” “Bugo” means “please,” and “Kamino” means “come back.”

Being a sequel, “Dead Man's Chest” doesn't have the fresh touch and coherent plot of the first film, but true to its form, as a fantastical epic-adventure, it moves at a brisk pace and takes audiences on an endlessly and relentlessly wild ride.