Just a few summers ago, we were all snickering into our popcorn tubs: a Pirates of the Caribbean movie? Yo-ho-no! But what could've sucked harder than The Haunted Mansion turned into a monster 2003 hit, buoyed by ghostly buccaneers, showy effects, and Johnny Depp's impeccably bizarre turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, surely the most inventive character yet to emerge from a 21st-century blockbuster. Long before Depp's Oscar nomination, plans were afoot to increase Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’s bootylicious haul with a pair of sequels filmed back-to-back. So, how can you love a series based on a rather sedate Disneyland attraction — films accompanied by a merch deluge not seen since fanboys were still jazzed about gettin' to know Darth Maul?
Pretty much, it's the pirates. Peg legs, cannon battles, talking parrots, mutiny on the high seas, rum chugging — pirate shit is damn near irresistible, especially when Depp's riding the mast. Within the first reel of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, a chorus of arrrs is raised, a mangy bird plucks out some poor soul's rotting eyeball, and a crew member remarks that Captain Sparrow is acting "strange ... er" than usual. Chest's plot is more convoluted than Pearl's, but every character — including Sparrow, feisty Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), heroic Will (Orlando Bloom), and prissy Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) — is searching for someone, or something, with single-minded determination. Chest also shares Pearl's ticking-clock pacing, with lives and relationships and eternal souls hanging perilously in the balance. Naturally, all these quests become interwoven and complicated by distractions, including a detour to a Skull Island–meets–Joe Versus the Volcano atoll, a gung ho swordfight, a beast bearing giant and aggressive tentacles, and the salty whims of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), whose ghostly Flying Dutchman operates like a kelp-strewn variation on the Philadelphia Experiment.
Unlike, say, flicks based on beloved comic books, Chest has no touchstones to hit or homages to pay, other than dropping in a few references to the first film. This allows director Gore Verbinski and scripters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (like sultan-of-slick producer Jerry Bruckheimer, all back from Pearl) the freedom to toss whatever they want into their Chest, which runs almost as long as Superman Returns but is infinitely more jolly, Roger. For a big-budget studio confection, there's actually a lot of imagination at play; Nighy's sneering performance, coupled with the special effects used to create Davy "Fishface" Jones's slimy visage, allows for a character who's equal parts Phantom of the Opera and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.
Of course the main reason the Pirates movies are so fun is Depp, without whom we'd be talking about a few hours of flashy CG and a couple of pretty faces (Bloom, you're still on notice for Elizabethtown). Sparrow prances, turns tail, delivers flowery double-talk, and cares only about saving his own skin (and, of course, his precious hat) — yes, he's a showboaty clown, but Depp manages to make him likable where others (Jim Carrey?) would simply come up annoying. I'm still not sold on Depp's Willy Wonka interpretation. But it's with good reason that Sparrow's the only film character he's played more than once.
And he'll play him again, to be sure. It’s not spoiling anything to say that Chest ends with classic middle-film-of-a-trilogy ambiguity; fates and loyalties wind up shakier than the points on Sparrow's discombobulated compass. The third Pirates is due next summer, so you won't have long to wait to see what happens. In the meantime, Chest is a solid adventure with a sense of adventure — cinematic currency that's as good as gold these days, ye scurvy dog. SFBG
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN:
DEAD MAN'S CHEST
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com for theaters and showtimes
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