3 stars (out of four)
Blow me down: A franchise picture with an enormous squid and a light touch. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" has half the violence but twice the laughs of the first film, "The Curse of the Black Pearl." It's a good trade, especially if you're partial to Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, and the way Depp's fashion-conscious pirate waves his arms around, like a puppet half-off his strings, when fleeing an adversary.
This big-budget studio job does not provoke a conflicted or worse response, as does "Superman Returns" or the gone, already forgotten remakes "The Omen" and "Poseidon." However bloated (nearly 2½ hours, just as "Black Pearl" shouldn't have been) and saggy in its midsection, if you're at all into squiggly tentacles, all sizes, or Depp's hilarious, feyly swanning characterization, this is the most satisfying big-screen excuse for overpriced popcorn so far this summer.
The first "Pirates of the Caribbean" (2003) might've been a hit without Depp, but it wouldn't have been much else. In that one, based on the Disney theme park ride so dear to the hearts of recreational pirates the world over, Sparrow, Orlando Bloom's Will Turner and Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Swann battled Geoffrey Rush's ghost ship. It was manned by undead phantoms whose bone-rattling evil could be unleashed only by moonlight.
This time Sparrow finds himself indebted to aquamaniacal Davy Jones (Bill Nighy, with squid tentacles coming out of his chin) while evading the clutches of an ordinary evil businessman, Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), whose interests in trade are equal to his interests in sniveling. Depp's above-the-title co-stars are Bloom and Knightley, but if they had anything interesting to do in "Dead Man's Chest" you could've fooled me. This isn't their film.
Produced by action headbanger Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Gore Verbinski, the first "Pirates" rekindled global interest in tri-cornered hats and stoked Sparrow-mania despite a heavy, mechanical spirit. The second one was also produced by Bruckheimer--the third one's on its way, and, yes, Keith Richards, Depp's acknowledged inspiration for Sparrow, will shoot a cameo as Sparrow's dad--but it plays, profitably, as if Verbinski co-directed it with Sparrow himself.
Two of the big action set-pieces easily outdo anything from the previous edition. One sequence features pirates escaping from a pair of coconut-shaped swinging cages, while Sparrow runs around like a shish kebab, having fled the scene of his own last supper on an island ruled by cannibals. The second such sequence places Bloom and Jack Davenport (as ex-Commodore Norrington) atop a spinning water wheel, dueling away. These balance kinetics with slapstick very deftly. They're exciting and witty--nothing to compete with the acrobatic comic panache of "The Crimson Pirate," to be sure, but not chopped liver.
Likewise, the scares in "Dead Man's Chest" come from a better place than anything in "Curse of the Black Pearl." Nighy, a superb character actor, is buried beneath a digital octopus head as Davy Jones--at one point, he hammers away at a pipe organ, each tentacle on the keys--yet Nighy's wily acumen comes through in his eyes. (Also, he has a terrific aide-de-camp on board, a hammerhead shark-man.) Jones has in his control the sea monster known as the Kraken, an old-school mythological "beastie," as Sparrow calls it. Verbinski and company allow the full size and nastiness of this many-splendored computer-generated nemesis to emerge onscreen in careful increments. It's an ode to the creature in Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," among other beasties, and in "Dead Man's Chest" there's a lovely long shot, comical yet sinister, depicting the first time the Kraken grabs hold of a ship and takes it under.
Such felicities are undermined by an infelicitous running time. I doubt even Verbinski's mother thinks these "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies need to be quite so lengthy. They do, however, need Depp--desperately. This resourceful and eccentrically charismatic actor is doing some priceless hamming in "Dead Man's Chest." From his tres-outre pronunciation of the word "marriage" to the little glide and bob and weave he does upon rising from his cannibal-island throne, Depp's Sparrow strikes a mighty blow for overacting employees of theme parks, Renaissance Faires and children's theater troupes everywhere.
'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest'
Directed by Gore Verbinski; screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio; cinematography by Dariusz Wolski; edited by Craig Wood and Stephen Rivkin; production design by Rick Heinrichs; music by Hans Zimmer; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens with some 12:01 a.m. screenings Friday. Running time: 2:20. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of adventure violence, including frightening images).
Jack Sparrow - Johnny Depp
Will Turner - Orlando Bloom
Elizabeth Swann - Keira Knightley
Davy Jones - Bill Nighy
Norrington - Jack DavenportCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times