In the world of film, there are characters and then there are characters. The former are many; they’re the fellers who walk on and off the screen, hardly noticed, forcing the audience to squint during the credits just to find out their names. But the latter – they’re something special. They’re the Indiana Jones, Forrest Gump, Hannibal Lector types of guys that stick with you. They’ve got quirks that feel familiar, affecting personalities and inescapable grace and charm.
You don’t find too many of them these days, not in a time where blockbusters at multiplexes just make money and artful filmmaking is only minimally showcased on the side.
But we stumbled upon one such character three years ago – and in a Disney movie based on a theme park ride at that.
And now Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is back in the first of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, “Dead Man’s Chest.” While he remains a singular eccentric worthy of our admiration (if only for that lovably absurd sense of self-importance and pity), the sequel itself is simply more of the same – a good idea now stretched to its limits by too many characters, plot twists, wisecracks and cinematics, not to mention an exhausting 150-minute runtime.
The sequel begins (proceeds, ends) in an odd, unpredictable manner. Just as they’re about to be married, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly, “Pride & Prejudice”) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, “Kingdom of Heaven”) are arrested, charged with helping the fugitive Sparrow escape (see the original film for those excellent exploits). Will cuts a deal with villain-in-wig Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander, “Pride & Prejudice”) to retrieve a treasure Jack carries with him in exchange for their release.
What he doesn’t know is that Jack has a deal to pay down himself, one that will lead to a showdown with the undead demon of the seas, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy, “Love Actually”) and his crew of slimy, sleazy fish-men. The epic struggle that results – for life, death and otherwise – tests the loyalties of our three heroes, pushes them to the brink and leaves them there, to be rescued next year by another sequel.
Much of what made the original film an unexpected success is present in the sequel, like harrowing, mythic plotlines, high jinks and, of course, Jack Sparrow. But the greatest quality of the first film was its infectious fun – unexpected but genuine. But as is the nature of infections, they’re only infectious for so long. “Dead Man’s Chest” depends on too many of the same twists and antics as its predecessor. They’ve worn out their welcome by now.
Eventually, even Sparrow becomes tiring. He’s still an outlandish loner, still trapped in his illusions of grandeur, but in a film that goes nowhere then circles around to go nowhere again, it’s hard to root for him as we all did the first time.
But never in going nowhere did a film accomplish this much, and “Dead Man’s Chest” is hardly a failure. What it loses to the first film in originality and charm, it makes up for in a deeper plot, nonstop action and astounding special effects. Indeed, given that this film cost $225 million to make, it follows that many ambitious effects-driven sequences that flow so seamlessly here could hardly be attempted in another film. And that has payoffs in aesthetics, which have to count for something.
Like Sparrow himself, “Dead Man’s Chest” is peculiar, hard to describe and easy to love and hate at the same time. Like most second editions of trilogies, it has no beginning or end, and would be a failure if it stood alone, but luckily, it doesn’t. The narrative mess the film creates will hardly deter audiences, who are already packing theaters in record numbers.
As frustrating as it sometimes is, “Dead Man’s Chest” is good enough to pique unprecedented interest for that next film, “At World’s End,” which opens next summer.
Captain Jack will sail again, and that’s enough to look forward to.
Rating: Three out of five stars
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
At the Showcase and Quality 16