Avast, mateys! Once again the azure seas of the 18th-century West Indies are beset with pirates, star-crossed lovers and supernatural beings. Continuing the mildly anarchic adventure begun in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Gore Verbinksi sets sail again with Dead Man's Chest.
On board this sequel, a familiar crew whose whereabouts are quickly updated. About-to-be-wed civilians Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) are unceremoniously flung in jail for abetting the notorious pirate, Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Sparrow, meanwhile, is at sea, idly commanding The Black Pearl with his magical compass.
But how quickly fate in big summer blockbusters changes. In no short order, Turner is freed in a bargain made with Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), local grand poobah of the East India Trading Company. Swann is on the run, disguised as a boy. And Sparrow learns that a mortal barter he made with dark lord of the undersea, Davy Jones, has come due, and needs evading. Toss in a couple more bit players; set everybody on a hunt for either a compass, a key, a ship or a heart (both literally and figuratively); and shiver me timbers, you've got immediate comic adventure as the whole devious pack lie, cheat, double-cross and outrun various dangers.
If you loved The Black Pearl, you're sure to like Dead Man's Chest. Part Two is virtually the same story, played by the same actors. It's possible that your enjoyment will drop a notch, though it shouldn't matter much ... this is unabashedly a summer popcorn film. (If you're looking for any subtext, take note that the noble art of free-lance pirating is being overtaken by a multinational corporation, represented here by the East India Trading Company.)
What Chest lacks most is the delight that Pearl engendered ... the surprise of seeing one of Disney's dumbest amusement-park rides turned into an entertaining film, and the career-defining moment that was Depp's swivel-hipped spin on Capt. Jack.
Depp reprises his highly amusing take on the sashaying, dreadlocked pirate, but Chest also spreads the action equably among its half-dozen protagonists, a gamble of Verbinski's I found effective. Jack's mugging and antics are fun, but by now all-too-familiar, and best savored in small doses.
Since all the marauding dead men of the first film have been quashed, the make-up and special effects teams turn their attentions to Davy Jones (admirably portrayed by Bill Nighy) and his crew of waterlogged unfortunates, all of whom are mutating into various undersea creatures. This is extraordinarily detailed work ... and exactly how I imagine a man half-covered in barnacles would look.
Transmogrifying sea beasties is one thing, but Verbinksi appears undaunted by today's PC mores when depicting the Caribbean people: They're not quite cannibals, yet they're barely more than the facile and antiquated characterization of crazed, feathered booga-booga natives. True to stereotype, they believe the weird white man, Capt. Jack, to be godlike, and they bestow upon him a necklace made of severed toes (there's a fairly high count of dismembered or otherwise loose body parts in this film).
In spite of its flaws, Dead Man's Chest is a successful sequel that stays close to home. Once again, Verbinski deftly balances action, humor, good-looking stars and impressive sets, and that splash of something snarky that never once insults the genre's antecedents. Like Pearl, this iteration is a trifle too long at two-and-a-half hours. Yet you won't be surprised to learn that despite its length, plenty in Chest is left unresolved. Yo ho ho, and a Part Three to go.