PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST
Mostly enjoyable, but it seems to suffer from overkill. Way too many subplots are crammed in, and way too little time is given to each of these subplots, for the story to do justice to any of them. There is also a fatal lack of escalation: the film hits an adrenaline high fairly early, and it stays at about the same level of excitement for most of its running time. It doesn’t end with the Big Finish, the Colossal Topper that makes you feel you’ve gotten you’re money’s worth of Summer Movie Excitement. But I liked it anyway, even if it does feel too much like a two hour and thirty minute prelude to next summer’s PIRATES III.
The story concerns our hero and heroine from PIRATES I, Will and Elizabeth, played ably by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Their wedding has been delayed by their arrest by the poisonous Lord Beckett (an appropriately sinister Tom Hollander) for aiding and abetting Jack Sparrow’s escape from the law (shown at the end of PIRATES I). Beckett has an Ulterior Motive, however: he will issue pardons to both Will and Elizabeth if they find Capt Jack Sparrow and obtain Sparrow’s apparently magical compass (a detail I don’t remember from PIRATES I, I’ll have to check). Capt. Jack has problems of his own, dealing with a long overdue debt (soul, eternity) to Davy Jones, played by the magnificent Bill Nighy, who manages to be recognizable even through his CGI face of octopus tentacles. Jack manages to tangle Will and Elizabeth in his schemes, and Will and Elizabeth tangle Jack in their schemes, and everything rattles on amusingly enough: escapes from cannibals, attacks from Krakens, and so on.
Alas, the subplots start to come quick and furious: the pair of comedy relief pirates (the short fat one and the tall skinny one with the fake eye) return for no other reason than that of providing a link to the first movie. A promising bit of business, the one-eyed pirate flourishing a bible he can’t read and talking about getting religion, never really goes anywhere. Neither does the subplot involving Bootstrap Bill, Will Turner’s father (Stellan Skarsgard), who is one of Davy Jones’ crew, and who isn’t given a lot to do but make unconvincing attempts to mend parental fences with Will and wear a lot of extremely unflattering makeup. There’s a new character, a voodoo witch who offers supernatural guidance when she isn’t slowing down the plot with excessive atmosphere and trying to out-flounce Depp. Jonathan Pryce’s scenes are similarly uninteresting and unnecessary, and his character is mostly forgotten about. Only Jack Davenport’s return as Commodore Norrington, Elizabeth’s unsuccessful suitor from PIRATES I now fallen on hard times, generates enough interest and seems important to the story, or stories.
We also get the crew of the Black Pearl, the crew of a foreign fishing boat who come to an unnecessarily sticky end, the crew of another boat who manage to pick up both Elizabeth and Will at different times on the same voyage, and you just get the feeling that the whole mess could have used some streamlining. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with wild excess, but when a scene of Elizabeth hiding out in male drag aboard a ship, using her discarded dress as a marionette to get a bunch of superstitious sailors to think a ghost is telling them to go to Tortuga actually makes it into the final cut of a movie you know there’s something wrong.
But the good stuff is good. The effects are effective, and the design is particularly interesting. Davy Jones’ crew has all started to morph into sea creatures, and a lot of fun seems to have been had in assigning them marine characteristics. One of them has the head of a hammer head shark and Jones himself has the aforementioned tentacle beard and an outsized lobster claw for a left hand.
I am a total helpless sucker for Johnny Depp’s work in general and for Capt. Sparrow in particular. It isn’t often I laugh out loud simply at an actor’s posture. A good friend’s child was asked what the best part of PIRATES II was, and she replied, “Looking at Johnny Depp,” a sentiment I can’t disagree with.
Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones is a marvel, an example of what a first-rate actor can do even when buried under tons of makeup/CGI (compare Nighy’s work with Keanu’s in A SCANNER DARKLY, and you’ll see what I mean). Nighy projects a palpable menace unlike anything found in PIRATES I. For the first time, attempts to draw parallels between a sinister captain in a piece of popular entertainment and Melville’s Captain Ahab don’t seem out of order. Those icy blue eyes and icier whisper make Nighy’s Davy Jones one of the very few characters, mortal or otherwise, who can attract attention away from Jack Sparrow. I want to see more of both the actor and the character.
Strange Things: the film looks dirty. PIRATES I has that studio-produced sheen to it, it looks like a big old fantasy movie. PIRATES II has a much grittier look to it. The exteriors look like real locations rather than backlots, everybody’s got bad teeth and sunburn. There’s even one bizarre moment when the picture gets very very dark, and I was concerned that the light bulb in the projector had burned out, but no, it just seemed to be clouds passing overhead. I’m not sure what they were after, but it does seem part of a general darkening of the atmosphere, an attempt to add a “serious” dimension to the proceedings. There are moments, brief to be sure, when the stakes seem to be almost spiritual. The One-Eyed Comedy Pirate’s flirtation with the Bible and bizarrely blurted statement about the “dichotomy between good and evil,” and Davy Jones’ Mephistophelian soul-collecting from sailors/pirates afraid of their fates in the next world hint at some more serious intent that never really comes fully across. Maybe next year.