I’ll admit it; the first “Pirates” movie (“Curse of the Black Pearl”) was a pleasant surprise. Absolutely no one held out hope that a movie based on a Disney theme park ride would be remotely tolerable (not without liberal doses of alcohol and/or hallucinogens, at any rate). So what if the so-called “pirates” were uncharacteristically sociable? Or if it was a bit bloated at two hours? Or if it unforgivably gave Orlando Bloom’s career new life after “Lord of the Rings?” Johnny Depp’s “Jack-Sparrow-as-Keith-Richards” act was fairly entertaining, Geoffrey Rush was great as always, and the locations were suitably sumptuous.
Then came “Dead Man’s Chest,” with its now two-and-a-half hour running time crammed full of repetitive action sequences, a new bad guy (Bill Nighy as half man/half mollusk Davy Jones), and hazy hints at Will Turner’s (Bloom) ultimate destiny. Depp seemed bored and the movie ground to a halt every time yet another character and their motivations had to be introduced. Further, the movie’s cliffhanger ending – rather than infusing me with a sense of anticipation for the next movie – filled me with vague unease. After the frenetic sensory assault of “Dean Man’s Chest,” would “At World’s End” (already filming at the time of the second film’s release) bring events to a satisfactory conclusion? Or would it continue the franchise’s slide into noisy incoherence?
Things start out rather grim the third time around, as scores of suspected pirates and pirate sympathizers are systematically hanged while a list of suspended freedoms (assembly, trial by jury) are read. It seems the East India Company, with the help of the British Navy, has declared open season on pirates.
This doesn’t sit all that well with Will, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), and Captain Barbossa (Rush), who are looking for a way to free their old pal Capt. Jack Sparrow from Davy Jones’ Locker, where he was consigned after getting eaten by the dread Kraken. To this end, they seek out pirate captain Sao Feng (Chow-Yun Fat). Things go balls-up in fairly short order, though the group do end up rescuing Jack just in time for an epic summit meeting between the nine pirate lords about how to deal with the threat of the East India Company.
After watching “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” I may have jumped the gun in complaining about too many action sequences in “Dead Man’s Chest.” There’s an exhausting amount of plot exposition here, and it isn’t like the fates of our main characters are enough, but we have to get more back story on Davy Jones and an entirely new subplot involving Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris). There are fight scenes, sure…both hand-to-hand and naval battles, but they’re spaced apart by long stretches of dialogue explaining absolutely every little story nuance and each character’s connection to another.
At some point after the release of “Curse of the Black Pearl,” screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio – drunk on whatever rare elixir a $650 million worldwide gross buys you – decided their new franchise needed more than just a randomly selected series of bad guys for Capt. Jack and company to fight; it needed a mythology. Will’s dad morphed from a simple pirate to a central character in Davy Jones’ camp, while Jack and Elizabeth’s relationship evolved from harmless (for a pirate) flirtation to the threat of actual romance. In short, Elliott and Rossio decided they needed a pirate version of “Star Wars.” And like their cinematic forerunner George Lucas, they decided to make sure each player got their time in the spotlight, with all the attendant self-indulgence that implies.
I’m of two minds about the third entry in the “Pirates” franchise; on one hand, this film is just as bloated (if not more so) as the second one, and while the action has been tightened up, there’s easily 30 minutes of flab that could be trimmed. What’s more, Bloom and Knightley remain as bland as melba toast.
On the other, the action is pretty engaging, Sao Feng and his gang of South Asian cutthroats are a nice addition, and the constant plot explication does require you to pay attention. The limbo of Davy Jones’ Locker is also pretty amusing (apparently it’s like a live action game of Zork), and the Keith Richards cameo is worth the wait. Bottom line: if you liked “Dead Man’s Chest,” you’ll like this. If you didn’t…well, you’ll probably like this one better.