The Good: Special effects, Moments of acting, Moments of character
The Bad: It's been done before, in Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl!
The Basics: While not terrible, Dead Man's Chest is nothing particularly new for those who have seen Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl.
The best sequels do more than continue a story. I recognize I'm coming late to the phenomenon that is Pirates Of The Caribbean as it took me quite some time to see and review The Curse Of The Black Pearl (reviewed here!), but I always try to watch movies outside their hype. Sequels, when I review them, need to work both as a self-contained movie and as continuation of a larger story. Three of the best sequels that come instantly to mind are The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan, and The Two Towers. The worst sequel that come instantly into my head is The Whole Ten Yards. And Batman And Robin (for the apples to apples comparison). Never forget how bad Batman And Robin was. Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is no Batman and Robin, but it's no Wrath Of Khan either.
Stood up on her wedding day, Elizabeth Swann discovers her fiancee, Will Turner, has been arrested for abetting a pirate and she soon shares his fate. Compelled to find Captain Jack Sparrow and his compass, Turner and Swann separately head to the seas. Jack Sparrow, for his part, finds himself at the mercy of Davy Jones, a squidlike captain of the Flying Dutchman, a ship full of cursed men who are being claimed by the sea. Sparrow's debt compels him to harvest others while he attempts to get the key to Davy Jones's locker, which will allow him to turn the tables on Jones.
From the outset, Dead Man's Chest suffers terribly on plot from the character aspects. From the moment Jack Sparrow reveals that he is looking for a key to Davy Jones's chest, the movie has mortgaged itself. Sparrow needs a key and he's using Will Turner to get it. He knows what he's looking for because he has an imprint of it, like a shroud with a stain in the exact shape of the key. Sparrow, ridiculously, leaves Turner at the mercy of Jones on the hope that Turner might end up with the key. Anyone who was even mildly awake during The Curse Of The Black Pearl ought to be able by now to see the critical fault of Dead Man's Chest and how the plot is unnecessarily complicated based on who the characters are.
For those not with the program: Will Turner is a blacksmith. Sparrow has an imprint of the key, essentially the blueprint. Turner is compelled to get Sparrow's compass, all Sparrow needed to do was give Turner the shroud and have him MAKE A KEY! Bam, movie's over. Turner makes a key, Sparrow recovers the chest, the day is won.
But no, that's not what happens.
If you're reading this review and it never occurred to you that Sparrow could have simply asked Turner to make a copy of the key to open Davy Jones' chest, that's all right. It's not all right that this concept did not seem to occur to screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio or director Gore Verbinski or even - apparently in a meaningful way - to actor Orlando Bloom, who plays Will Turner.
This is a long movie, about two and one half hours. A significant portion of that is spent trying to find the key to open the box. To make clearer; this is an overcomplicated movie for the story being told. From the outset of the concept, it makes little sense.
So, everyone is using someone else, everyone in Dead Man's Chest is being extorted. Boo hoo. We saw that before in innumerable movies, including the previous Pirates Of The Caribbean. What is so disappointing about Dead Man's Chest is there's nothing truly new. Outside Davy Jones and Tia Dalma, there are no new characters of note.
Which leads us to the special effects. The danger of making a special effects movie is that in order to truly sell it, one needs to do something different with special effects, something that pushes the envelope of what has already been done. As a good example of this, I'll use the Star Wars prequels to illustrate succession. In The Phantom Menace there is Jar-Jar Binks and the podrace (a digital character and one big scene of spectacle that is mostly computer generated), in Attack Of The Clones there is the digital Yoda, the Clone Troopers, and the final battle sequence (a previously live-action character recreated as a digital, completely digital characters and an even bigger spectacle including entire shots that only exist on computer) and in Revenge Of The Sith there is the opening space battle, the fight between the digital Palpatine and digital Yoda and the incredibly long sequence of the lightsaber battle between Vader and Kenobi (entire digital realms, combination digital/live action and sequences where the reality and CGI have to flawlessly swap between one another while working with entirely digital backgrounds). Right or wrong, Lucasfilm escalates in each Episode to continue pushing the technology (and story) forward. Dead Man's Chest does not do that.
Sure, Davy Jones' crew is all manner of sea-people. That's cool, it's interesting, it looks good (generally), but it's not essentially new. A lot of the shots look similar to the undead crew from The Curse Of The Black Pearl. The argument could go that this episode has the Kraken, Davy Jones's giant sea creature. There is that. It, however, feels very familiar (probably because in the final shots of the movie, it looks like the Sarlaac from Return Of The Jedi) and is also not a terribly impressive effect. The tentacles of the kraken often suffer from the "Gladiator tiger effect." In Gladiator there is a digitally created tiger that suffers because it is lit as if lit from all angles. The tentacles are similar, becoming bright purple enemies that look completely unreal.
My final plot note is one I wish I could share, but it would spoil the movie for the three people reading this review who have not yet seen Dead Man's Chest. Sufficed to say, in fighting the kraken, various tactics are employed and the final assault on the creature makes little sense given the subsequent scenes. For characters who are manipulating one another constantly, they aren't terribly tactically gifted.
That said, much of what was enjoyable in the first movie is still enjoyable here. There are moments where the movie is tongue in cheek; for example, the crew of the Black Pearl finds themselves captured by cannibals when Sparrow flees Davy Jones. There are two groups of captives: all of the recognizable characters from the Black Pearl and the other group (with conspicuously black characters).
The acting is as blasé in Dead Man's Chest as it was in The Curse Of The Black Pearl, with Bloom and Knightley continuing to underwhelm. Jonathan Pryce continues his underused, but decent, portrayal of the now-disgraced Governor Weatherby Swann. The lone pleasant acting addition is Naomie Harris (who I enjoyed quite a bit in 28 Days Later) who has what amounts to a cameo as Tia Dalma. And on the character front, Pintel and Ragetti return to fulfill their Disney-standard role, with Ragetti going so far as to explain the plot, which is disappointing.
Thus, much of the movie comes down to whether Davy Jones and Jack Sparrow can sell the audience on seeing the film. Davy Jones is sad and lonely - he keeps a locket on his piano - and villainous. Jones is played by Bill Nighy, though all trace of the actor is digitally erased in order to create the creature effect. Nighy is a talented actor, but there is nothing that screams "Nighy!" left in his portrayal of Davy Jones, making it hard to comment on the acting. The character is fairly monolithic and it is not evident why he wants his entire crew to slowly transform into sea life aboard the Flying Dutchman.
Which brings us to Captain Jack Sparrow and Johnny Depp. Sparrow is pretty much the same as he was in the first movie. He's a pirate, conniving, selfish and humorous to watch. But he's not more. The revelation of how the compass works is unsurprising given how Sparrow feels about his ship, though it does make the resolution to the movie make less sense. Depp's portrayal of Sparrow is consistent. There's nothing truly new here in the portrayal.
That's the best way to sum up Dead Man's Chest. It's not new. It doesn't grow the characters, it does not progress the effects, it does not challenge the viewer in any meaningful way. It sets up the third movie completely and that's about it.
It left me wanting more.
For other films featuring Keira Knightley, please check out my reviews of:
Star Wars – Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
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© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.