Tuesday, July 18, 2006

In Theaters: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

[Image courtesy of the Cinematic Intelligence Agency]

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST hardly needs my stamp of approval at this point; it's the highest grossing film of the year, and though opinion seems to be mixed, it's got plenty of fans. Frankly, while I liked the first film, I wasn't as won over by it as others. I thought it had some great writing and fun performances, but the actual swashbuckling was somehow lacking. To be sure, great characterization and acting are usually neglected in your epic summer blockbusters, and welcome when they surface, but if there's action it ought to be done as well as everything else, and in CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL there was something less-than-gripping about it. I had more or less the same response to DEAD MAN'S CHEST; I still don't think Gore Verbinski quite has the genre down (though, to be fair, he's the only one trying), but I enjoyed watching the story develop and seeing the characters again. It's fun, if just a tad forgettable. Spoilers may follow.

Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley) have their wedding indefinitely postponed when they are both arrested for aiding the escape of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp.) Will is offered a deal- if he can track down Jack and obtain a particular compass he carries (one which never seems to point just north), he and Liz will get a pardon. So off he goes, but Jack in the meantime has received a vision from Will's father, Bootstrap Bill (Stellan SkarsgÄrd), who tells him that Jack owes a debt to the mythical Davey Jones (Bill Nighy), a squid-faced pirate who captains the Flying Dutchman, a legendary ship of the damned on which Bill is one of many strangely deformed crewmen. Fearing Jones' wrath, Jack first escapes to a tropical island where he is made chief of a tribe of cannibals. While Will tries to rescue Jack, himself and the crew of the Black Pearl from becoming long pork, Liz effects her own escape with some help from her father (Johnathan Pryce) and sets off to try and meet them. Will ends up on the Flying Dutchman himself, as Jack pursues a mad plan to track down the chest which holds Jones' heart and hold it hostage in exchange for his life. As it happens, Jones has not only his ship, but the ability to summon the Kraken, a giant tentacled sea monster who can pull ships underwater in a matter of minutes and is useful when Jones needs new crewmen. And this is the simplified version.

A lot goes on. There's almost a vintage pulp appeal to the ramshackle construction of the story, as characters run and sail madly across great distances trying to save their necks and preferably those of their loved ones. In addition to cannibals and sea monsters and the weird mutant sea monsters that the Dutchman's crew almost inevitably turn into, there's also a voodoo priestess, a zombie monkey, various intrigues on behalf of the East India Company, and the return of the disgraced commander Norrington (COUPLING's Jack Davenport, almost unrecognizable under layers of grime.)

Oh, yeah, and not a lot of this gets resolved. When the first movie became a hit, Verbinski and writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott decided to shoot for a trilogy, the two sequels being shot almost back to back (various disasters forced delays in the shooting of Part III), and so this film ends on a cliffhanger. This may turn some viewers off, and I had heard the ending was just a tad abrupt, but it actually kind of works. Enough happens in this installment that it doesn't feel like a cheat, and the writers pick a truly excellent stopping point. It works better than it should.

Unfortunately, I was having so much fun following the whacked-out story that I was downright disappointed when things stopped for an action sequence. Two of the major setpieces- involving, respectively, a rolling cage and an unstoppable windmill wheel- come off as far too cartoonish, and frankly almost all of the action is more funny than thrilling. The swordfighting is particularly weak- the characters never really come across like they're trying to hurt each other, more like they're trying to make their swords clash. There's plenty of visual splendor, and I do like the monsters, but there's a certain "oomph" missing. (The battle with the Kraken has its moments, though.)

The three leads are as good as they ever were; Bloom and Knightley are likeable enough that you want the two crazy kids to turn out all right, and Depp's Jack is again a study in charismatic loopy scuzziness (a cameo by Keith Richards as Sparrow's father is planned for the finale.) Much of the supporting cast of the first film returns. The script seems to flirt with a few interesting themes, or at least patterns; the freedom that Jack and the other pirates enjoy (and which Liz seems to long for) is threatened by the encroachment of the old word, Jack faces a genuine moral dilemma for what may be the first time in his life, and Will finds he may have to go to great lengths to release his father from a lifetime of damnation (there are, needless to say, some unusual religious implications.) I'm not sure how coherent any of this is, but it seems like the writers put at least some thought into it. I appreciate that.

So, I found myself liking this film quite a bit. It's interesting that despite the success of the first movie both with critics and audiences, the pirate genre still hasn't come back into vogue; maybe this will prove it wasn't a fluke. Though most actual pirates, then and now (and I'm not counting Bittorrent users), have been chiefly interested in taking people's stuff and causing violence when necessary, there were some in the day who seemed to believe in an ideal of liberty and adventure, and had a sort of code of honor; I suspect that's the reason why we still admire the image. I have no idea why I felt compelled to point that out, but the point is, we need pirate movies, and this is a good 'un. So there you have it.

Grade: B

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