The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, July 13, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Full review behind the jump

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

: Gore Verbinski
: Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, based on Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean
: Jerry Bruckheimer
: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Stellan Skarsgård, Jack Davenport, Tom Hollander, Jonathan Pryce, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook, Naomie Harris

The goal of
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is to inspire you to say: “well…ain’t that the damnedest thing you ever saw?” – and then to make you say it again five minutes later. This sequel to 2003’s hit Curse of the Black Pearl is easily one of the most expensive movies ever made, it stuffs the screen with spectacular vistas, constant action and creatures of the most grotesque and delightful oddness. After two-and-a-half-hours I could honestly say that it’s hard to imagine more swords clanged, sails unfurled and swashes buckled in the course of a single movie – excepting perhaps next year’s trilogy-capping episode, which per the scripture of the original Star Wars trilogy is set up in delirious cliff-hanging fashion.

But stumbling across the tightrope line between grand excess and wretched excess is not by itself a virtue – there’s a difference between a three course dinner invitation and being conscripted into a pie-eating contest. Every sequence is wrung for maximum seconds elapsed, every fondly remembered character moment or line of dialogue from the first film is studiously called back to, and so many of the outsized personalities fighting for your attention need their character arcs tended that you’ll be right in guessing that this movie is juggling more than it can handle even for its epic running time.

It’s at its best when it follows the mischievously flouncing manner of the drunken daredevil Captain Jack Sparrow, the original damndest thing you ever saw. Johnny Depp’s one-of-a-kind performance as the wild card in the first film effectively shanghaied it from the pretty heroics of its ingénues – and through him the movie strikes its tone of grand adventuring mixed with an intoxicating overdose of cheek.

As before the plot flows from Sparrow’s habit of keeping very bad company –in order to secure his beloved ship The Black Pearl, he sold his soul to the dark lord of the underwater underworld, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), a ghostly pirate-squid who looks sort of like the very mean version of Futurama’s Dr. Zoidberg. Now Jones means to collect on the debt, and Sparrow is searching for a hidden chest whose contents he hopes will give him bargaining leverage.

Meanwhile, the planned wedded bliss of the lovely Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and the even lovelier Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is interrupted by arrest warrant, which is probably a bad omen for a marriage. The tyrannical new representative of the East India Trading Company, Mr. Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), is asserting control over the Caribbean islands with a mix of thuggery, coercion and bureaucracy. Ostensibly our heroes are being arrested for their assistance in saving Captain Jack from arrest, but really Beckett wants something of Jack’s and is hoping to use Turner’s friendship with him to get it.

This sets in motion a cavalcade of perils involving soldiers, steep cliffs, cannibalistic natives, games of chance, Davy Jones’ undead crew (who look like their body parts have been replaced by decaying crustaceans, mollusks and the like) and The Kraken, a ship-snapping monster with skyscraper-high suctioned tentacles and an aura of fearsome majesty. The movie has wall-to-wall special effects but shows smarts in how it positions them – what’s most effective about The Kraken is not how quickly its tentacles can whip about, but how the movie has the restraint to depict the slow terror of those tentacles climbing out of the water and surrounding a very fragile boat.

The trend towards oversized action is so addicting that at one point two characters find themselves dueling while trying to keep their balance on top of a giant rolling mill wheel – and if they had the sense to think for two seconds they’d realize they could just jump off it and have a proper duel. For erring on the side of novelty and other reasons, the thrill rush isn’t matched by a true sense of unabashed wonder – Verbinski is a successfully slick and agile filmmaker but he lacks the heart of the Spielbergs and Peter Jacksons of the world. The movie is too arch and modern to trust itself with our heartstrings, it always wants to make sure you remember that it’s just playing at all this romance stuff. There’s a point in the movie where love strikes must unexpectedly and inconveniently – it feels forced upon the narrative until the actors save it later in a moment of choice which changes the direction of everything.

Bloom has a thankless job trying to make a straight arrow character compelling when surrounded by a platter of such gifted hams. Nighy fills the antagonist role Geoffrey Rush played with such crackling relish in the first film, he is an actor who can chart whole operas of emotion just by squinting, and he’s worthy to the task. Doofus sidekick pirates Pintel (Lee Arenberg) and Ragetti (Mackenzie Crook) continue enacting their cranky but co-dependent relationship with one another and are emerging as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the saga.

But once again Johnny Depp trumps them all as Captain Jack – who can exasperate you, steal from you, endanger you, lie to you and betray you constantly, and somehow along the way inspire you. It takes his reckless courage to charge into the weird and supernatural corners other sailors would just as well leave undisturbed, and his feeble sense for danger to disturb them thoroughly. Without a character like him, you’ve got no plot. Without Depp’s performance making the character pop to life, you’ve got no movie.

Captain Jack wouldn’t be Captain Jack without the id-fueled and rum-muddled dialogue provided by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. These writers really ought to be better known outside of Hollywood than they are, since they’ve provided sparkle and wit to Fun For the Whole Family cinema like Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro and Shrek for a whole generation. There is talent involved in bringing fresh joy to broad material – they have it in spades.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest gives you a full bill for the price of your ticket. It entertains, to the point of exhaustion, yes, but to its credit, leaving you ready for more. It could be shorter, could be more stirring, the music could be better, but I guess you don’t try to micromanage a pirate.


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