Johnny Depp is back as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the anticipated sequel to the blockbuster hit of the summer of 2003, once again a Bruckheimer production directed by Gore Verbinski. The merits of this entertaining, but bloated and confusing film, are decidedly mixed. While critics marveled that the first film managed to make everyone forget that it was based on a Disney theme ride, critics are now lamenting the fact that the sequel feels like an extended ride. In some ways, it is much worse than that. The plot is so convoluted that fans may leave wondering what happened; when they understand what happened, they may mumble, “Oh, okay, but why make that so complicated?”
“Because they can,” is the only reasonable answer to that question. Why, furthermore, make a plot-challenged film — whose best moments are episodic slapstick — so long, 150 minutes long? Because they can. The filmmakers know that so long as they supply sufficient action and enough humor from Depp, audiences will show. By those mediocre standards, the film is a smashing success.
The plot begins with an interrupted wedding, as the about to be married Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly) are arrested for assisting the pirate, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Meanwhile, we learn that Jack owes a blood debt to the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), captain of the Flying Dutchman, a ship whose crew, sentenced to servitude on Jones’s ghost ship, has come to resemble monsters of deep. Davy in particular is a remarkable hybrid of human and squid with tentacles protruding everywhere. The central plot involves a quest for a key that will unlock a chest that contains a mysterious object that promises freedom for Jack and others.
Of course, the film is mainly a vehicle for Johnny Depp to reprise his role as Sparrow. But that role, while still quite entertaining, is not as fresh as the first time out. At times, there is a self-consciousness to Depp’s performance and a certain self-indulgence in the filmmakers’ inordinate reliance on the popularity of Depp’s character. If in the original Depp played Keith Richards as a pirate, here he’s playing Johnny Depp playing Keith as a pirate. The word is that Keith himself will appear in the finale as Jack’s father. If they want Keith to make it to the premier, they want to keep him off the set during the filming of scenes involving coconuts.
There are some good laughs about pirates and their rum, including one in which Captain Jack, sitting in his office on board his ship, lifts the bottle only to discover that it is empty. “Why is the rum always gone?” he asks plaintively. As he tries to stand, the shifting of the ship combines with his own alcohol-induced vertigo. “Oh, that’s why,” he deadpans.
Aside from the scenes with Will Turner and his father (in a terrific performance by the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard), the film lacks human elements to balance out its slapstick. One might have supposed that the love-hate relationship between Elizabeth and Jack would have supplied some of that element. And, it does–but only as the film is ending. The sexual tension between the two is marked with just the right degree of reserve and sense of honor, even if that never precludes mutual mockery. Disguised as a male pirate, Elizabeth eventually reveals herself to Jack, who immediately turns to one of his lackeys and says, “Hide the rum.” Their banter has a serious undertone. He claims she wants him because she desires freedom and reckless abandon. She, in turn, claims that he is secretly attracted to her sense of honor, to the possibility that he might have nobility somewhere deep in his soul. She prophesies him that a moment will come when he will have the option to do the right thing. He responds flippantly, “I so love those moments. I like to wave at them as they pass by.”
The final scene between Elizabeth and Jack raises the film, if only briefly, above the level of slapstick and farce. There is a decided note of ambiguity in the scene, one that piques the interest of the audience. So why, in a film nearly void of genuine human emotion, delay that scene until the very end? Not, in this case, because they can, but because they must slavishly obey the only commandment for the second film in a trilogy. Whet the appetite for the final film.
Rated PG-13, the film contains little that should prove morally offensive, unless one finds the consumption of large quantities of rum and the occasional expletive offensive. More worrisome for parents with young children is the presence of a few truly frightening scenes. The film also contains a number of grotesque images, some of which involve cannibals (think King Kong or Indiana Jones) who have come to believe that Sparrow is a god, whom they plan to release from his bondage to the world of the flesh by roasting and eating him. Then there is the squid, humanoid squid, giant, monster squid that must appear in every big battle scene. If most things in life could be improved by more cowbell, this film could be vastly improved by subtracting squid. The film will undoubtedly make big bucks for Disney, but it won’t do wonders for the calamari market.
– Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.