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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest   B+

Walt Disney Pictures / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writers: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Cast: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Bill Nighy, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin R. McNally, Stellan Skarsgård.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Pirates of the Caribbean sequel is such rollicking fun -- so stuffed to the gills with every piece of riotous swashbucklery that the filmmakers could get their hands on -- that it's easy to miss how dark and ghoulish it becomes at times. The Disney logo at the beginning casts a deep fog of fluffy nostalgia, and director Gore Verbinski ricochets between extremes of excitement, absurdity, and Grand Guignol horror with deceptive ease. You're scarcely aware of the depravity until it's right on top of you, leering in your face. Dead Man's Chest revels in the same Boy's Own frivolity that its predecessor did, and yet it holds something much different at its core: something cold, dark, and very, very wet.

No one above junior-high age should be troubled by that, of course, and indeed, the fact that Verbinski & Co. celebrate piracy without shying away from its nastier aspects makes for a far more interesting film. And Disney has never been as opposed to a good scare as its squeaky-clean image suggests; the PotC theme-park ride has certainly reduced more than its share of children to terrified shrieks over the years. But still, parents whose tiny tots are eager to see this movie ought to know what's in store for them. Here there be monsters. And not the happy, fluffy Pixar kind either; not even the scary but relatively agreeable skeletons from the first Pirates movie. This time around, they're the stuff of real nightmares: oozy Lovecraftian terrors borne in dark drowned places undisturbed by the tread of man. They scuttle with alien purpose across landscapes doused in seaweed and slime. Their visages speak to every goose walking over your grave, every clammy hand on your shoulder in the dark, everything that makes you close your eyes and pray to make it all go away. While the special effects that create them are both impressive and believable, their presence is not for the faint of heart. Nor are the film's more mundane examples of depravity: torture, cannibalism, decorative body parts, and one Mickey Mouse-approved instant where a raven plucks a man's wandering eye from its socket. Rarely has the PG-13 rating seemed more extreme (this film really deserves an R and shame on the MPAA for again caving in like the tools they so clearly are). Moms and dads looking for a fun family outing should give serious pause before exposing their kids to these, the Happiest Old Ones on Earth.

For the rest of us, however, the mixture of eldritch fright and lightweight adventure can be truly intoxicating -- though there is quite a lot of it packed into 150 minutes, and it rarely sees fit to let us up to breathe. The worst parts of Dead Man's Chest indulge in the typical sequel's need for a curtain call, reproducing characters and routines from the first film in hopes of eliciting cheers without any real effort. Every prominent figure from Pirates I returns for Part II, from heroes Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley) all the way down to those two spurned strumpets who slapped their wayward lover on the streets of Tortuga. The presence of so many of them can make things unduly crowded, as they strain for face time amid an avalanche of effects and an extremely busy plot. But generally, Verbinski keeps them in hand, ensuring that their presence serves some purpose in the story, and even including some surprising twists along the way. Jack Davenport's Commodore Norrington for example -- one of the more pleasant surprises of the first film -- has fallen quite far from grace since last we saw him, while Will and Elizabeth learn what troubling lengths each will go to for sake of the other. By and large, everyone is pleasant and keeps within the proper mood of things. Only Geoffrey Rush is missing from the party (his undead villain having bought it at the end of the first film), and you get the impression that he'd be here if he could.

But as enjoyable as they all are, and as fun as it is to see Verbinski playing imaginatively with the bells and whistles of the pirate genre, they're none of them center stage. Once again, Johnny Depp's fey rascal Jack Sparrow is the straw that stirs the drink: the first and best reason anyone has for buying a ticket. Sparrow hasn't missed a step since his last adventure, and screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Russo have hit upon another first-rate pickle to land him in. It seems that his beloved ship, the Black Pearl, originally arrived in his possession through less than natural means. A deal struck 13 years ago with the fell spirit Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) gave Sparrow the vessel in exchange for his immortal soul. Now the 13 years is up and Jones has come to collect, along with his crew of cursed sailors bearing the spiny, barnacle-encrusted forms of the sea's creepiest crawlies. Jack, being Jack, fully intends to welsh on the deal (with a little help from his friends, of course).

The intensity and relentlessness with which Verbinski pursues this tale would be unseemly in less capable hands. But not only has he struck gold with his cast and crew, but he understands how to take the film's various trappings in new and creative directions (aforementioned curtain calls notwithstanding). It's one thing to give Jones the face of an octopus, but it takes special sort of whimsy to say, "Hey, what if he uses his tentacles to play the pipe organ?" The same spirit infests more straightforward sequences, such as a running swordfight where three people have to defend themselves with only two weapons, or Jack's impromptu thwarting of what can only be described as Pineapple Fu. Dead Man's Chest succeeds because Verbinski maintains the joy and excitement of these elements even as he carries us into decidedly blacker waters. Jones's crew has a sense of true damnation to them -- a glimpse of what hell might be really be like -- and the film routinely revels in the perfectly ordinary ways which an oft-romanticized pirate culture tormented and butchered their fellow man. Few directors could place such largely agreeable and upbeat energy atop a foundation so shudderingly gruesome.

Depp helps a great deal, of course, retaining his character's cockeyed eccentricities without losing his believable human core. His presence holds the disparate themes of the film together, while Verbinski provides an appropriate crucible on which such a scoundrel can be tested. Dicing with the devil has turned Sparrow into one of Disney's most treasured figures. Why shortchange it by making the devil any less terrifying, or the consequences of the gamble any less chilling? Dead Man's Chest should be commended for taking that equation to its limit, though a little more warning up front would have been appreciated. The pleasures here are many, the company is grand, and the bungled finale that marred Pirates I has been deferred -- hopefully forever, and at least until the conclusion of the trilogy next summer. But have no doubt: Dead Man's Chest goes to some very scary places... and few of them are marked on Uncle Walt's brightly colored map.

Review published 07.02.2006.

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