Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

4 stars


11th July 2006

The original Pirates of the Caribbean was a true gem back in 2003; a movie based on a Disney themepark ride ended up being the big attraction of the summer, the humungous box office takings clearing the waters for not one, but two sequels. Its success was in no small part down to one Jonathan Depp III as Jack... sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow, a pirate with the spirit of Keith Richards and the personal hygiene of a particularly filthy eco-warrior. A pirate's work is never done it seems, and Dead Man's Chest sees him return to the ocean waves, along with the rest of the crew of the Black Pearl. As its record-breaking opening weekend testifies, if you're looking for a couple of hours of pure escapism, best set your course for your local cinema and drop anchor, matey: here be treasure.

The Del Trotter of the seven seas, one of Cap'n Jack's dodgy dealings has come back to haunt him - having sold his soul long ago to the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), captain of an army of distinctly fishy sea creatures, Jack must now find a way to repay his blood debt, or spend the next 100 years scrubbing barnacles off the hull of the Flying Dutchman. Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) have their wedding plans ruined by the impossibly dastardly Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), who imprisons Elizabeth on counts of treason and sets Will on the trail of Captain Sparrow to bring him to justice, promising her release if he brings back Jack's mysterious compass. On his mission to reign in everyone's favourite drunken sailor, Will discovers his father Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) in the servitude of Davy Jones, and vows to set him free from an eternity of damnation.

A lot has been made of the fact that Dead Man's Chest is supposedly the Empire Strikes Back of the Pirates series (which would make the third movie, currently titled At World's End, the Jedi of the trilogy), in so much as it has a much darker edge and a fairly downbeat storyline. The comparisons are not too wide of the mark; the characters all have their own separate agendas and their own plotlines, a much moodier tone is established and yes, it even has an ending that seems very un-Disneylike. Depp would still be the Han Solo of the piece, the roguish antihero who runs away with the whole shebang, while Bloom is still lumbered with the rather thankless, Skywalker-esque role of goody two-shoes Will. Knightley would certainly be the Leia of the movie (although she's given a lot more to do this time), and there's even the comedy relief in the form of Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg's returning pirates; one short and fat, the other tall and skinny. It's not exactly difficult to make such connections, although it's fairly standard practice for the middle section of a movie trilogy to place its protagonists in danger and make it seems like all is lost.

At times, Dead Man's Chest often looks in danger of collapsing in on itself due to the sheer volume of characters and their story arcs. Certainly it seems a little unnecessary to bring back almost everyone from the first movie (although one particular returning patron will bring a smile to your face at the end) and as such, it does struggle to differentiate between each character and the goal they're actually aiming for - one scene actually requires Crook's wooden-eyed simpleton to explain rather crudely to his partner exactly why everyone is fighting each other. If the two-and-a-half hour running time occasionally threatens to sink it, Dead Man's Chest keeps afloat with some truly stunning set-pieces, including a swordfight on (and in) a trundling water mill and an appearance from Davy Jones' pet fish the Kraken, which devours ships like Ronaldo devours pies. Director Verbinski somehow managed to remain in the shadow of Depp's leading man last time round, but he deserves more credit this time: visually, it's one of the most sumptuous-looking films you're likely to see this year.

Kudos also for ironing out some of the wrinkles evident in the first Pirates adventure. Although still as wooden as a pegleg, Bloom manages to give Will Turner a little more gravitas this time around and doesn't sound quite so ridiculous when attempting to be butch anymore. Knightley injects a little sexuality into her role and even shows signs of a rebel nature, something her prim and proper character lacked in the first movie (that 'corset' line still remains the crappiest line in the series so far). If you thought the villain in Curse of the Black Pearl was a little too hammy, then you'll adore Davy Jones; half-man half-crab, he's an excellent creation and a winning mix of character design, top-quality CGI and motion-capture work from Nighy. With a beard made of tentacles and a thick Scottish accent, he's far more threatening than Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa ever was. Make no mistake though, this was always going to be the Captain Jack show, and Depp has once again turned in a performance worthy of all the praise that will be flung at it: Sparrow is at once playful yet devious, childlike yet intelligent and never less than utterly mesmerising at every turn. Full of subtle facial nuances and pitch-perfect pratfalls in equal measure, it'll no doubt be remembered as one of the all-time great comedic performances over the course of all three movies.

In the very best traditions of the ripping yarns of old, we leave our now trusty crew at a cliffhanger up there with the very best of them - without spoiling anything, there are dark times ahead for all and the fate of at least one major character hangs in the balance. With the final reveal shot, you'll realise that you'll have to wait an entire year until the story concludes, and that's when it hits you; you've warmed to the characters so much that you've grown attached to them and will actually miss them until At World's End pulls into port in 2007. Giant sea monsters, squid demons, swordfights and undead monkeys are all well and good, but it's the sterling work done by the cast and the writers that'll have you crossing off the days on your calendar. For a summer event movie, that's a rare quality indeed.

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