By Pete Vonder Haar | July 8, 2006

The success of the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” bore some similarities to that of 1999’s “The Mummy.” Both were released with no real marquee stars (Johnny Depp’s only pre-“PotC” box office hit was “Sleepy Hollow,” Brendan Fraser’s was “George of the Jungle”), both featured a generally agreeable mix of action and comedy, and both were surprise hits (moreso “Pirates” than “The Mummy,” however). Each movie also inevitably produced a sequel, and while “The Curse of the Black Pearl” surprised many who were quick to disregard a movie based on a theme park ride sight unseen, its follow-up, “Dead Man’s Chest,” falls prey to several of the same pitfalls that befell the movie I’m so desperately trying to connect it with: “The Mummy Returns.”

Give director Gore Verbinski credit for one thing: he doesn’t screw around. As “Dead Man’s Chest” opens, young soon-to-be newlyweds Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Elizabeth Swann) are being arrested by Lord Beckett, the new c**k of the walk in Port Royal. Their crime? Aiding and abetting the escape of one Captain Jack Sparrow, and the penalty – fittingly for a movie about pirates – is death. Will ends up bartering with Beckett (he’ll free Elizabeth if Will procures Captain Jack’s mysterious compass), while Elizabeth herself engineers a more direct means of escape, and both embark upon separate paths to hunt down the elusive swashbuckler.

Jack (a somewhat more subdued Johnny Depp) has his own problems. Sure, he’s still in command of the Black Pearl, but his crew is growing increasingly disgruntled at their captain’s apparent disinterest in “honest piracy.” Worse, the time has come to pay up on the debt he owes to the infernal Davy Jones (Bill Nighy, playing a sort of Glaswegian cthulhoid), who’s laid claim to his soul. Captain Jack faces an eternity of servitude aboard the Flying Dutchman, or worse, unless he can obtain the key that holds the secret to breaking Jones’ hold over him.

It’s a meager plot on which to hang a two-and-a-half hour movie, so naturally Verbinski and company decided to bloat the production with more strange encounters, longer fight scenes, and better special effects shots. The resulting product, as mentioned before, suffers from the same sense of one-upmanship that plagued movies like the “Mummy” sequel and the later “Batman” movies. Even though “Dead Man’s Chest” is only a few minutes longer than “Curse of the Black Pearl,” the latter felt shorter. More scenes took place that advanced the actual story, and the novelty of the characters felt more engaging that it does here. Certainly, the settings are just as lush, Davy Jones’ cursed fish-men are interesting to look at, and the kraken is really, really big, but did we really need two lengthy action sequences involving people trapped in rolling contraptions? Or three giant squid attacks?

Depp and the bad guys are the also only ones who really appear to be having much fun. Bloom is obviously trying to imbue Will with a sense of the character’s “destiny” (hinted at by a mysterious swamp witch), but other than bellowing a lot, it never comes across. Of the subplot involving his deceased pirate father Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), the most you can say is that Skarsgård is pretty good. Knightley seems completely at sea (no pun intended), unsure of whether or not she’s supposed to be doing slapstick comedy or brooding inner torment and not succeeding much at either.

Still, “Dead Man’s Chest” is exactly the kind of thing most of us have in mind when we think “popcorn movie.” It’s largely brainless, pretty to look at, and produced solely as a lead-in to another moneymaking sequel for Disney. It’s the “Empire Strikes Back” of the “Pirates” franchise, right down to the hanging ending and the unexpected romantic angle. I’ll reserve judgment on the entire series until the release of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” next year, but for now, “Dead Man’s Chest” is a step backwards.

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