While it makes a certain amount of financial sense for certain, modern trilogies to double up on their final two installments (before the arrival part four and five and so on…), it’s a renowned fact that pirates are notoriously shit with money and so, much like the diminishing returns that came part and parcel with the second and third Matrix movies, the continuing adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow and his peers also found themselves sinking to the briny depths of the ocean.
But then, that seems to be the problem with back to back sequels, isn’t it? I know we’re supposed to see them as one big movie but that’s admittedly tough to do when the two halves story can be separated by anything from six months to a year and are usually marked by an excruciating cliff hanger. The much-hyped return of the much hyped return of the swashbuckling pirate genre certainly has its good points, by it’s ultimately keelhauled by the rules of multi story sequel making.
The wedding of Elizabeth Sawn and Will Turner hits a major snag when their big day is gatecrashed by the tyrannical East India Trading Company and it’s ruthless chairman, Lord Cutler Beckett who calls for the arrest of the formally happy couple for aiding the escape of notoriously flouncy pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow. Facing the gallows, Will does a deal for Elizabeth’s freedom by volunteering to hunt down Sparrow in order to gain possession of his magic compass that points in the direction of that the holder desires most and Will finally tracks down his quarry on an island crawling with cannibals. However, it seems that Jack’s undergoing a fair amount of personal stress himself as the deal he made with the mythological sailor Davey Jones to bequeath him the ship the Black Pearl many years ago has finally run out and the immortal captain of the Flying Dutchman and his crew have come to collect. Hiding on land and subsequently escaping the cannibals with Will’s help, Jack postpones his fate by trying to extend his deadline by offering his former saviour as collateral, but while among Jones and his crew who have been cursed for so long they have become of the sea, he meets his long dead, long lost father “Bootstrap” Bill Turner and vows to free him of his curse. Meanwhile, Elizabeth has also brokered a deal with Lord Beckett and heads out to find Sparrow himself, stumbling onto the disgraced, former Commadore Norrington and joining Sparrow on his quest to find a chest that is said to contain the still beating heart of Davey Jones in order to leverage him out of the deal.
As you could expect, with all the deals, double crosses and vows that are flying around, Jones has found a way to neatly cut through all the bulkshit that comes in the shape of a giant sea monster known as the Kraken that he keeps around to take care of problems just like this…
If there’s an overriding issue with with films made in this style, it’s one that Dead Man’s Chest exudes in spades and it’s the fact that no matter how big and epic the scale of the adventure and action gets, you simply can’t avoid the notion that it’s all technically just filler. Maybe it’s Lord Of The Rings’ fault, or maybe it’s even Back To The Future, but the middle film in a continuing trilogy is always kind of dead weight, kind of a stop-gap if you will, until we reach the actual resolution. As a result, the overwhelming running time is rendered almost completely null and void until the literal last fifteen minutes which gets to work concerning itself about setting up the next chapter, killing off Jack Sparrow, seeding dissent among the leads and resurrecting Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbosa who was rendered distinctly brown bread the last time we saw him.
It’s a shame, because if Dead Man’s Chest actually was allowed its own identity and came with an actual ending it wouldn’t be half bad. In fact it would be pretty damn good as there’s genuinely lots about Pirates’ second voyage that’s worthy of raising a flag to and chief among these is a legitimately kick-ass villain in the form of Bill Nighy’s gloriously realised Davey Jones. Looking like someone spliced Robert Louis Stevenson and H.P. Lovecraft together in a lab, the squelchy captain of the Flying Dutchman is a glorious sight with his octopus beard, claw arm and a crabby peg leg and his crew is equally magnificent looking as they drag their mutant, barnical encrusted, aquatic selves around, rewriting the book of CGI mo-cap performances as they go. Of course, having Jones look so awesomely awesome is only half the joy as the animators even allow for a typically eccentric Bill Nighy performance to shine through all the pixels as he goes through all his repertoire of tics – not to mention a natty, Scottish brogue – in order to breathe genuine life into one of POTC’s coolest ever villains. He’s even got a nice line in organ playing tentacles – which is nice.
Elsewhere, returning director Gore Verbinski keeps things switching between startling nastiness and broad slapstick as out returning cast return to do slightly exaggerated versions of what they did in the first movie. Kera Knightley and Orlando Bloom continue their capable, if vanilla leads, while Jack Davenport ups his sardonic retorts and Kevin McNally shines as essentially Jack Sparrow’s warm up guy. But what of Johnny Depp’s most famous creation? Has the inevitable sequelization of a character that took the world by such delightful surprise managed to water down the mincing old rogue? Thankfully, no, as Depp’s schtick still manages to hold more water than the boats Sparrow regularly sinks and in the often dizzying miasma of trying to keep track of who’s currently back stabbing who, he’s a reliable port in a storm for an absurd one liner or a spot of clumsy swashbuckling.
Aside from Nighy’s tenticled terror, the other newbies to the cast also add to the dense nature of the plot with Tom Hollander’s devious arch-villain in waiting giving a nice line of sand-dry threats, Bill Skarsgärd’s wretched Bootstrap Bill skulking around with barnacles growing out of his face and Naomie Harris milking the accent of her voodoo priestess for all it’s worth.
However, Dead Man’s Chest achillies heel turns out to be that age old problem that plagues modern blockbusters: an overdose of macguffins; with the cast crawling over themselves to get their grubby mitts on a succession of plot advancing bric-a-brac like a compass, a key, a picture of said key, a chest, a heart and a jar of dirt. Still, the action is suitably enormous with three-way duels on top of careening, out of control water wheels, mad chases from cannibals and not one but two, mahoosive Kraken attacks proving that the movie is probably far too long for its own good…
But like I say, it’s all rendered obsolete by the final stretch that leaves us with a death for Jack Sparrow that’s painfully obvious that it’s only temporary, the fate of Jones left annoyingly up in the air and all of our cast standing around looking confused while Rush messily eats an apple. It’s not fatal and it all still works, just, but it’s aspirations to epicness dilutes what could have been a much shorter, sweeter bottle of rum.