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Chest Pains 

I remember the dread I felt three years ago when I set out to review Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. As regular readers of this column already know, big-budget, lowest-common-denominator movies seldom bring me much pleasure. And Black Pearl was advertised as based on a ride at Disneyland. At least Hollywood's love affair with films based on comic books came along with stories to tell. But there's no narrative in an amusement park ride. Imagine my shocked delight, then, when I enjoyed Black Pearl so much that I rented it to share with my wife when it came out on video. Black Pearl set me up for a cruel reversal. I went to Verbinski's current Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest with high hopes and almost died of bored discontent before it finally ended two and a half hours later.

Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, Dead Man's Chest returns most of the original cast for less of the same. Johnny Depp is back as the swishbuckling pirate Captain Jack Sparrow who thwarted stuffy English imperialists in the first film, thereby sparing the colonial governor's daughter, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), from a loveless marriage to a stuffy naval officer. The second film begins as Elizabeth is just about to marry her true love, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a man of many worthy attributes; none of them, unfortunately, proceed from his bloodline, for his father, Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), is a pirate. Enter Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), who stops the marriage ceremony before it begins, throws Elizabeth in jail for treason (his logic for doing so is almost beyond comprehension but actually of no account anyway) and demands that Will locate Jack and relieve Jack of his compass.

And so begins a series of adventures connected only by the flimsiest narrative thread. In sum, the compass leads to a key which opens a chest that contains the still-beating heart of squid-faced Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), the not-so-pleasant ruler of the waves. Seems Beckett is a front man for England's worldwide trading interests, and if he can possess the heart, he can control Davy Jones, and British ships will sail safely into ports from Shanghai to Timbuktu so that shopkeepers in Nottingham can become as prosperous as the feudal barons whose fields they used to plow. Or something like that. Not that Verbinski or his writers really care about something as insignificant as narrative cohesion. For unlike the first film, this picture isn't about story and characters; it's about spectacle.

It is also seemingly aimed at an audience anxious for the opportunity to sit in the dark, slurp sweet drinks, munch popcorn and say, "Yuck!" Thus, instead of plot progression, we get slimy things sliming things. This has worked for (or least this has been survived by) such better flicks as Ghostbusters and the original Men in Black. But as one labors through the sitting marathon of Dead Man's Chest, one can't help but wonder how many preadolescent boys Verbinski must have on his production team to think their gross-out ideas were so cool. Davy Jones has eyes and a mouth, but his head is crawly with tentacles so prehensilely adroit he sometimes plays the piano with his face. Meanwhile his crew contains Hammerhead Man, Conchhead Man, Pufferfish Man and others vaguely marine but less immediately classifiable. The folks who made these guys up must have had a ball. Too bad they didn't figure out how to share their fun with us.

I saw Dead Man's Chest at a full-house Sunday matinee, and I would venture a guess that few enjoyed themselves any more than I did. The audience was shockingly quiet throughout, and I overheard several complain about the film when it ended. One disgruntled viewer griped that the picture's end was a "ripoff." I would contest that analysis only in commenting that Dead Man's Chest doesn't really have an ending. It quits in the middle of things and, in the final frames, reintroduces Geoffrey Rush's Barbarosa character from Black Pearl as a way of alerting moviegoers that if they want resolution they'll have to wait until next summer for the series' third installment. A family of four shelling out more than 50 bucks for tickets and snacks deserves better.

The enjoyable first picture had some of the weaknesses of the second, but it also had a wonderfully fresh performance by Depp to save things at every turn. Depp is given less to do in this second entry, and having already established his character, he has little left with which to delight us. In fact, though I like Depp immensely, I thought that this time he took his hyperventilating queen schtick beyond where it worked. Unintentionally, the picture closes with an aptly ironic metaphor for its own failing: we last see Jack Sparrow as he rides his sinking Black Pearl into the brine.

click to enlarge Norrington (Jack Davenport), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) - and Jack Sparrow(Johnny Depp) fight for the key to the Dead - Man's Chest. - (C) DISNEY ENTERPRISES
  • (c) Disney enterprises
  • Norrington (Jack Davenport), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Jack Sparrow(Johnny Depp) fight for the key to the Dead Man's Chest.
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