Sunday, July 26, 2009
The first Pirates of the Caribbean was the biggest surprise hit in years, maybe since Titanic turned a cloying melodrama into the highest-grossing film of all time. A joyous blend of action, comedy and a tinge of romantic melodrama, it proved to be the best piece of escapist fun in years. It was its own nice, little, self-contained story, but I can't blame anyone for wanting to see more of Captain Jack Sparrow.
Unfortunately, the drive to make things bigger and better for a sequel resulted in a bloated, aimless affair that expands both the spectacle and the moments with no idea how to balance the two halves. It also makes the fatal mistake of believing that anyone cares about the mythology of this little world, as opposed to just wanting to have some fun. So, what might have been the creation of a seafaring Indiana Jones instead became an 18th century version of the Matrix saga.
Following the events of the first film, the East India Trading Company cracks down on piracy in its waters and sends Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) to Port Royal to clean up the place. A personification of ruthless imperialism and greed, Beckett will manipulate or kill anyone who stands in the way of profit. He arrives at port ordering the execution of Will and Elizabeth for aiding and abetting piracy. To make matters worse, he does this on their wedding day.
Beckett gives Turner a chance for redemption by offering to give pardons if he can retrieve the compass that led to the Isla de Muerta in the previous film. Turns out, it can also lead to a chest containing the heart of Davy Jones, captain of the Flying Dutchman, who ferries dead souls from the world of the living to his Locker. Jones, played by Bill Nighy, is a technical marvel. A monstrous amalgam of sea creatures, Jones has a crab claw and tentacles for a beard. All of this looks so realistic you'd swear he was wearing prosthetics with only a few digital touch-ups here and there, but it's all animated.
He's not the only beautifully rendered object in the film. His crew, also a hodgepodge of sea creatures -- the hammerhead shark man in particular catches the eye -- are covered in barnacles and starfish. The crew members who have served for decades are stuck in the very walls of the ship. The large-scale fights, too much though they may be, look flawless. Even the water effects look indistinguishable from shots taken on actual seas. ILM's work can be hit or miss -- their numerous innovations rub against sloppy work on such films as the Transformers series and the early Harry Potter installments -- but their work on Dead Man's Chest is among the very best CGI has to offer.
What a shame, then, that we must sit through so many scenes of exposition and backstory to pad out the length to an overlong 2-1/2 hours. The notion of Jack owing his soul to Davy Jones seems pointless, because it would appear that Jones claims all of the dead anyway. Would working on his ship really be that bad? And Will's dad serves on the Flying Dutchman? Death means so very little in this world. There is also an insufferable obeah priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), who explicates heaps of mythology in a thick, manufactured, nigh-unbearable Jamaican accent.
This half-hearted stab at severity, however, does offer a few boons. Nighy excels as Jones beyond the shimmering CG, because we're given reasons to fear and care about him. There's a sadness in his eyes as he wanders the seas still grieving over lost love, and the wrath that pain engenders is fearsome. Norrington, disgraced after his failed attempts to capture Sparrow, appears in an alcoholic stupor before sobering up long enough to plan a path to redemption. Beckett himself is terrifying in his detached sadism: apart from his quest to reap revenge on Jack for some long-ago dust-up, he orders the deaths of large swaths of men with cold indifference.
Hollander and Nighy are wonderful, but the film hits a real snag with its star attraction, Johnny Depp. Depp, who was so energetic, fresh and unpredictable in the first film, has compacted Jack into a ready-made formula: sarcasm and bumbling idiocy give way to a meticulously thought out plan and yet more sarcasm. Perhaps he's just not as interesting now that we know him, now that we know the other shoe will drop for every dumb thing he does. It's not that Depp sleepwalks through the movie, but he just doesn't light up the screen like he did in Black Pearl.
On the plus side, Keira Knightley's part is much expanded, and she does a great job with it. No longer simply a damsel in distress, she actually sets out to save the guy when Will is trapped aboard the Dutchman. Most interestingly, the filmmakers decide to give her a dash of sexual tension with Jack, to great effect. Where her relationship with Will feels tepid and melodramatic, sparks fly instantly with the rakish pirate. You know it won't lead anywhere, but the give and take between the two is hysterical and exciting.
What makes Dead Man's Chest so interesting (and so infuriating) is the tonal shift of its fighting. The original drew on the madcap fencing beauty of Errol Flynn, but this is more Three Stooges than anything. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- the Stooges informed the action of Evil Dead 2 to great effect -- but it takes attention off the impressive dueling and places it onto ridiculous spectacles like fighting on a rolling wheel, or running away from cartoonish cannibals. Had these scenes been toned down and shaped into something exhilarating instead of vaguely comedic, Dead Man's Chest might have come close to the level of the previous film.
Nevertheless, it offers up enough fun and interesting characters (even a slightly subdued Depp steals the show without effort) to make it worth your money, especially if you have the Blu-Ray. I thought Black Pearl looked amazing, but this puts it to shame. Just watch the scenes with the kraken and you'll that, however much you spent on your Blu-Ray player, it was worth it. The film looks so gorgeous it actually improved in my estimation over the DVD. What once hovered around a 2.5 now gets a solid three stars for being that much more entertaining. Where Curse of the Black Pearl is a great action film period, Dead Man's Chest is more a lazy Sunday sort of picture. Now only one question remains: dare I go back to the end of the world?