The Pirate’s Life Strikes Back
As I was psyching myself up for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest — not that I needed much psyching up, I’m so in love with the first film — I suddenly realized that there would be no middle ground with Dead Man’s Chest. It was either going to be Highlander 2: The Quickening, or it was going to be The Empire Strikes Back. There’s no room for middle ground here: the first film didn’t just come out of nowhere like Star Wars did, all fresh and free of the burden of audience anticipations. No, The Curse of the Black Pearl was facing outright derision: How could a movie based on a theme-park ride possibly be any good, even if Johnny Depp is in it?
And it smashed those expectations to tiny bits by being so clever, so witty, so funny, so fun. But the fact that Pearl was not only not awful but in fact really amazingly fantastic means that it had an enormous challenge before itself when it came to another go. Any sequel to Pearl that was gonna work could not merely be more of the same — we don’t just want more, we want MORE. A sequel would have to take different chances, go new places, up the ante, not be afraid of taking a darker and scarier and gloomier route, not be afraid of maybe even throwing in a bummer of a cliffhanger of an ending — Jack Sparrow frozen in carbonite? — while all the while still being uniquely funny and swashbuckling-sexy and crammed with adventure and romance and all those yummy things. Anything less than that, and it’s Jack Sparrow 2: The Quickening.
None of this — I thought with that particular kind of pointless dread that afflicts people who really, really love movies but who know most of them suck — was boding well for Dead Man’s Chest.
And for the first half an hour, gosh, maybe even the first 45 minutes of Dead Man’s Chest, it was seeming as if my fears were coming to pass. You can feel the film straining to duplicate the effortless magic of the first: there’s the odd and amusing entrance for Jack Sparrow, even if it doesn’t quite feel organic; there’s the two Shakespearean-fool pirates bickering, even if their Laurel-and-Hardying is more a struggle than it should be. Everything comes at us just a little too fast, just a little too inexplicably, as if returning screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and returning director Gore Verbinski (The Ring) felt a truly urgent need to shove us into the middle of an ongoing story when a softer landing into the fray would have worked just fine and achieved the same effect. Everything’s a bit… forced.
Not the cast. Johnny Depp (Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, The Libertine) is, I suspect, not entirely “acting” as the pirate Jack Sparrow — as gracefully wacky and unaffectedly outrageous as he is, I can’t help but imagine that there’s a lot of the resolutely independent Depp in the character: Depp is Hollywood’s Jack Sparrow. Perhaps it sounds strange to call one of the most over-the-top characters in all of movie history “graceful” and “unaffected,” but Sparrow is not a cartoon, perhaps even less so here than he was in the first film — here, he struggles a bit with maintaining his aloofness, sparring with Elizabeth over just what pleasures propriety can bring and letting his desire for a taste of that trip him up in a big way. Keira Knightley (Domino, Pride & Prejudice), as proper-lady-gone-just-a-little-renegade Elizabeth Swann, is a corker, dressed in boy’s duds and snatching the opportunity to do some swashbuckling of her own. And Orlando Bloom (Kingdom of Heaven, Troy), as the upstanding Will Turner, imbues even Will’s silent moments with a kind of torn ache: he loves Elizabeth so much that, well…
Well, that all comes later. The point is, the charming cast carries us through the first awkward act until, suddenly, at around the 45-minute mark, everything suddenly snaps into focus, and by God, it becomes The Empire Strikes Back. And since this is a two-and-a-half-hour movie, that means we’ve got plenty of Pirates of the Caribbean Strikes Back to go. Not that those early bits of the movie are unnecessary — they set the stage and usher us along to the good stuff, and you won’t even find yourself thinking that all that early bits should have been better, because the rest of the film is so spectacular that you will forget that you’d been squirming in your seat just a moment before. Characters pop up that we may not have been expecting but should have, like Norrington (Jack Davenport: The Wedding Date, The Libertine), the once bewigged, stuffed-shirt naval commodore and Elizabeth’s former intended who’s suddenly not at all bewigged and far less stuffed-shirted (and boy, is he a lot cuter all piratey or what?). And Will’s dad, Bootstrap Bill — he’s played by Stellan Skarsgård (King Arthur, Dogville), who’s all but unrecognizable and, surprisingly, tenderly poignant.
But wait. Weren’t we told in Pearl that Bootstrap Bill had gone down to Davy Jones’s locker? Why, yes, we were… and Bill makes his appearance here courtesy of the film’s big bad guy, Davy Jones himself. And here is the seriously freaky and newly dark and gloomy aspect of Chest: Davy Jones (Bill Nighy: The Constant Gardener, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, totally hidden under makeup and CGI and yet somehow instantly identifiable) and all his curs’ed crew are turning into sea creatures; Jones is an octopus-like creatures; Bill’s got barnacles and starfish sprouting from his face. The undead walking skeleton pirates of Barbossa and his crew in Pearl were way cool, sure, but we’ve been seeing undead walking skeletons since Ray Harryhausen flicks in the 60s; Jones and Co., on the other hand, are like nothing we’ve seen on film before, and there’s something really ooky and really disturbing about these half-man, half-fish things, something that touches on the dangerous lure of the sea, on the seductive power of following your dream, and on the peril that comes with seeing your dreams come true. These half-fish men are men who pledged their lives to the sea, and now that’s come back around to bite them on the ass…
Oh, and the Kraken, the bad-ass sea monster Jones commands? Awesome… and very much out of classic Hollywood flicks.
Once it finds its groove Dead Man’s Chest just gets it all so damn right, bouncing back and forth between out-and-out physical humor that — Disney appropriate — makes you think of amusement-park rides, makes you think that bit in particular will actually show up as a Disney World attraction, and sly wit that you almost can’t believe they managed to sneak in, like how the real bad guy here is the weasel Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander: Pride & Prejudice, The Libertine), a representative of the East India Company, which wants to rule the world. Between Jack Sparrow’s delicious wickedness… and Jack Sparrow’s delicious wickedness setting him up for a big fall.
Like The Empire Strikes Back did, Dead Man’s Chest kinda kicks you in the teeth in the end. In a good way, sure, a way that reminds you why you love the movies — cuz they wrap you up in characters you suddenly realize you care deeply about, cuz they take you away to places you wish you could visit, scary as they are. Dead Man’s Chest takes advantage of its own power to put you on the edge of your seat and leave you hanging there, leave you screaming, No, don’t make us wait three years to find out what happens!
But it’s not that bad a tease. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is scheduled to be released May 25, 2007.
• Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (review)
• Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (review)
• Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (review)
• Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Dead Men Tell No Tales) movie review: yo ho no