There is one moment in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest — only one — that genuinely captures the overpowering personality and anarchic spirit that made the first film so popular and wonderful. It comes early in the film, as the intrepid Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is trapped on an island where the primitive natives think him a God and plan to “free him from his body” by roasting him on an open flame. After a rescue attempt by his pals Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) goes wrong, Captain Sparrow makes a break for it, and we see him come around a corner and barrel down a deserted beach in all his demented, arm-flapping glory as an islandful of savages follow on his heels.
This is a great moment, grand and reckless, encapsulating Depp’s character and providing a fine example of his hilarious physicality, without which this franchise wouldn’t have gotten very far. It’s also marvelously devoid of self-consciousness, unconcerned with topping the previous stunt or special effect, a visual joke similar to Sparrow’s memorable entrance in The Curse of the Black Pearl — one of that film’s simplest devices, but probably the one everyone remembers best.
The rest of Dead Man’s Chest is largely missing this sort of flair. We get a big and complicated plot, an incredible part-CGI villain, and plenty of Depp’s mincing, but the movie is murky and not all that much fun. Will and Elizabeth, who were unremarkable but engaging heroes and a charming couple in the first film, get to do little beyond run and fight; the story sends them on their way and off they go.
What seems to have been forgotten, or never realized to begin with, is that the fun of The Curse of the Black Pearl wasn’t all in the action and the effects; it wasn’t even mostly so. I missed the charm of the set-up, with Bloom’s courageous peasant swordmaker forgetting his station and winning the girl; the joy of his bandying words with Jack Sparrow (“You cheated!” “Pirate!”); the naīvete of his romance with Elizabeth and his rivalry with Jack Davenport’s snooty Norrington. I missed, too, the ravenous glee of Geoffrey Rush’s performance, and the energy that kept even the film’s most attenuated stretches — the ridiculous final showdown between immortals, for one — entertaining in a stupid-but-then-again-not kind of way.
I did not miss the exaggerated stunts and old-fashioned swashbuckling, since we get that in spades — usually the two are combined, as in a fight scene set atop a gigantic wooden wheel rolling through the forest. But Gore Verbinski is not a standout technical filmmaker, and he rarely makes the enormous set pieces work on their own merits. I enjoyed the scenes with the Kraken — an enormous sea monster that swallows ships at the behest of the villain — because the effects generate an impressive sense of scale, but most of the endless barrage of action just blends together. Meanwhile, the story is too convoluted to serve as an entertaining clothesline for all of this, and by about the one-hour mark my eyes started to glaze over.
With all that, I will still admit to liking the film, if marginally. Johnny Depp is still here, after all, bringing along a number of big laughs and lots of delightful scenery-chewing, even if the novelty is gone. The cliffhanger ending provides some hope that the imminent third film (currently planned for release next summer) will restore some of what is missing from this one. And even when Dead Man’s Chest is at its worst, it never threatens to become perfunctory: sometimes, the film becomes fun by sheer force of will. Other times it doesn’t, and though this is still a decent enough blockbuster, viewers will be forgiven for missing the Pirates of old.