review: pirates of the caribbean, the second

July 8, 2006

In a word, it’s more. As uberproducer Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest “blockbuster,” Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest offers more of everything you liked–or didn’t like–about the first, now rocketed to predictably extravagant levels. With no grandiose ambitions other than to amuse and divert for its 151-minute running time, the film is well served by its triumphantly realistic visual effects (courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic) and the undeniably intriguing and bafflingly hilarious character of Jack Sparrow–excuse me, Captain Jack Sparrow–again played by the inimitable Johnny Depp. And while the film’s visuals certainly deliver in the way a summer event movie should, its surprisingly dark tone and filled-to-bursting plot pull it away from its comedic heart.

Depp’s portrayal of the scoundrel Jack Sparrow was a revelation in 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl, garnering the actor his first Oscar nomination and propelling the film’s box office to meteoric heights . This time around, the writers are clearly conscious of the character’s popularity, and so it is on his back that the movie rides. While Jack’s jokes and mannerisms are perhaps less spontaneously zany in this iteration, Depp has more than enough charm to keep the whole enterprise safely afloat.

What is difficult, however, is determining how we ought to feel about the character (and pirates in general). Jack is clearly presented in a favorable, even noble, light even though he does what suits him without much regard to the consequences; that they are often advantageous for our heroes seems to be justification enough. The distinction between piracy and the law is further blurred by the arrival of a nefarious British lord, played by Tom Hollander, whose abuse of authority appears designed as a legitimizing counterpoint to the “well-intentioned” piracy exemplified in Sparrow.

The film never strays far from Captain Jack, but most of the cast from the last film make a return, including a few you might not expect. Though Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner grated on me a bit with his earnestness, he redeems himself somewhat in an intriguing subplot involving his sort-of-dead father (Stellan Skarsgård), an unhappy servant to the whims of villain Davy Jones (more on him later). Keira Knightley’s character, the spunky Elizabeth Swann, flirts unexpectedly and entertainingly with Depp; their adversarial yet affectionate banter proves far more interesting than the dull “romance” between her and Bloom.

Jack Davenport also makes a welcome return that adds much-needed dimension to the now ex-Commodore Norrington. The intervening years have not been kind to him, and his selfish ambition to recapture his old life throws him into conflict with former love interest Knightley; insufferably upright Bloom; and deviant, self-serving scalawag Depp. Finally, the comedic duo of Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook–you may remember their cross-dressing tendencies from the first film–continue to bicker amusingly as members of Jack’s crew, though in true pirate fashion they pursue their own interests above all.

Once again, supernatural elements fly freely throughout the plot’s many twists and turns. Davy Jones, a monstrous sea lord with a face only an octopus could love, has secreted away his still-beating heart in the titular Dead Man’s Chest, and since “whoever controls the heart controls the sea”–whatever that means–it’s up to our heroes to find it (with a little help from Jack’s magic compass). With no fewer than five factions struggling to acquire the chest, the film builds towards a predictably madcap sword-fight-cum-chase sequence that tops anything seen in the first film. Of course, none of this comes into play until an hour or so in, as much time is devoted to a silly subplot involving Jack and crew’s capture and escape from an island full of cannibals, the consequences of which have nothing much to do with what happens later.

While Geoffrey Rush was creepy at times in the last film, the twinkle in his eye offered some assurance that, deep down, he really wasn’t all that evil. The same cannot be said of Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones, who offers captured sailors a choice between death and a century of servitude (most choose the latter) and possesses the formidable ability to summon the Kraken, an enormous sea monster which delights in ripping ships apart in mere seconds. As the story goes, Jones placed his heart in the chest to avoid the unbearable pain of being in love. Unfortunately, it would seem that in doing so he lost his ability to feel entirely; and while the burning rage that drives him certainly makes for a fearsomely ferocious figure–children will likely be terrified–it damages our ability to sympathize with his rather tragic plight.

Make no mistake, this film is much darker and more violent than its predecessor. Multiple executions, stabbings, and countless other threats of violence sully the jovial atmosphere promoted by the film’s lighter moments. Pearl had some of the same, but the overbearingly malevolent spirit of Davy Jones in particular makes this much less of a family film. Also of note is a voodoo priestess (Naomie Harris) whose appearance is so shockingly menacing and hideous that it seems impossible that she and Jack were once “involved” in some fashion; she’s downright scary, and in a way that repulses most unsettlingly.

Both the cinematography and the scoring are improved over the last film, though the former more than the latter. The opening shots in particular achieve a keenly observed beauty that far exceeds expectations, and returning director Gore Verbinski has become remarkably adept at integrating myriad CG elements into his compositions, even approaching Peter Jackson’s masterful work in the Lord of the Rings films. Grain is apparent where appropriate, and it and the slightly washed-out palette grant the film an aged, slightly antiqued look that fits the time period. Public reception of Pearl‘s score proved extremely polarizing, with critics condemning its strikingly modern, rock-style compositions and frequent repetition and others–mostly of the younger generation–admiring it for the same reasons. For better or worse, composer Hans Zimmer went with a more traditional approach here, though virtually all the themes from the last film make an appearance and electronic elements anchor several cues; if nothing else, the new score is a much more coherent whole than the last, a rushed collaboration involving no fewer than five different composers.

As the second film in the trilogy–part three is coming next summer–Dead Man’s Chest makes no apologies for an ending that is both sudden and frustratingly vague about the fate of a central character (think The Matrix Reloaded), so much so that by watching this installment you are essentially guaranteeing yourself (and Disney) a viewing of the three-quel. While a great many things happen in this film with regards to character and plot development, it’s tough to shake the feeling that much of this is merely a setup for events yet to come. We must hope, then, that they do not disappoint.

Addendum: On further reflection, perhaps my characterization of Jack’s portrayal as “noble” went a little too far; I likely should have left it at “favorable” as that has less of a moral denotation. Still, It is nevertheless true that we, the audience, are meant to be rooting for Jack, the “hero,” despite his murky moral reasoning. Jack makes us laugh with his quick wit and roguish charm, and, given that we know that things will turn out well in the end, it’s very easy to dismiss his failings. What’s more, the forces that oppose Jack’s lifestyle–namely the British Crown and the laws it represents–are themselves corrupt (as noted above) in this film, making the lifestyle seem acceptable and even desirable.

–D. S. W.

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4 Responses to “review: pirates of the caribbean, the second”

  1. Jonathan Coveney said

    I had lackluster expectations…it definitely seems, from the reviews, that it was written for fans. I guess I should go see it, although this doesn’t leave me too excited.

  2. Handsome Prince said

    The list of films I haven’t (won’t) see is by far longer than the list of all the rest. It seems that the big movie makers are caught in the meshes of Catch-22 (tee-hee). Like modern baseball – working on hitting home runs more than majoring on the fundamentals that win games. Out with originality, risks, and actors that aren’t on supermarket magazine covers! In with sequels, bandwagons and the same old names! Zzzzz.

  3. mrwiz said

    Originality still exists, I think, but it can’t afford to trumpet itself in a zillion different places like these movies can. And, lest we forget, this is summer: land of the “blockbuster.” Good movies around now are nearly non-existent.

  4. […] As you may have heard, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest has broken both the record for the largest one-day opening, with $55 million, and the record for the largest opening weekend, with $135.6 million (both are domestic totals). Those are enormous numbers, figures that producers of less popular movies might well sell their souls for. To be honest, it’s difficult for me, having seen and reviewed the film now, to understand what is driving this level of interest. Yes, the first film was a resounding success that, among other things, revitalized Johnny Depp’s career and launched a lucrative Disney franchise. And I enjoyed it, as well as its sequel, if only for Depp’s performance and if only for the duration of its running time . But the kind of success that Chest is having is, frankly, unbelievable. Its popularity is certainly, as the New York Times notes, rooted in the magnetism of Depp’s character, but why? Why do we care so much about Jack Sparrow, so much that we turn out in record numbers to see the latest Pirates film? […]

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