The sequel was never going to be as much fun as the original. The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie succeeded because its charm was so unexpected: the wildly goofy story, the boisterous score and, of course, Johnny Depp’s wonderfully weird performance, sneaking a cult-movie sensibility into a studio extravaganza. The sheer surprise of finding that much giddy joy in what appeared to be a by-the-numbers action movie made Pirates of the Caribbean charming.
How could the sequel hope to duplicate that, to again surprise us when the memory of the first surprise is what brought us to the theater in the first place? The makers of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest attempt to compensate for the lack of surprise by offering more — more pirates, more Depp, more action, more supernatural silliness — but their eagerness to please strains the movie’s appeal. Subplots for every character weigh the story down. The set pieces feel contrived rather than organic, with director Gore Verbinski virtually shrieking, “Look at this! Isn’t this cool?” Even some of Depp’s loopy behavior feels like pandering now that his Captain Jack Sparrow is no longer a risk, no longer original.
The premise is a bit beside the point, but here goes: Jack Sparrow is attempting to escape his debt to the cursed, sea-dwelling pirate ghoul Davy Jones. Meanwhile, the not-so-proper lady Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and her fiancé Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) have been arrested for helping Sparrow escape the noose in the first movie, and the slippery Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) offers them a pardon if Turner can obtain Sparrow’s magical compass.
None of this really matters, of course, and as the movie continues, the plot makes less and less sense, crossing the line from cheerfully nonsensical to bewilderingly absurd. The set pieces are fantastic, though. My favorite is a beautifully choreographed three-way duel beginning on a beach and moving to a mill, where the water wheel comes loose — as it always does in the movies — with the three duelers inside and Elizabeth shouting with exasperation from the sidelines.
That sequence is energetic and quirky and terribly funny, but elsewhere Dead Man’s Chest sags noticeably. Attempting to unearth some nobility in Jack is tiresome, and we already explored Will’s daddy issues in the first movie.
It’s not that Dead Man’s Chest is so bad, just that it feels stale and bloated where the original feels fresh and trim. Some of that might bloat might come from the fact that the sequel is a middle movie, setting up the final third of the Pirates trilogy (though with as much money as these flicks are making, the studio heads might feel the need to redefine trilogy to include further installments). The last scene, in particular, plays like a trailer for No. 3, and god help me, I fell for it: Dead Man’s Chest might have disappointed me, but I can’t help hoping that Verbinski, Depp and company have new surprises in store for the future.