Awash in plot twists

Times Staff Writer

IT'S like Lois Lane said, the world doesn't need Superman, but it could use more of Jack Sparrow. So, for that matter, could "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," the second installment in what will soon be the first major motion picture trilogy based on a theme park ride subsequently remade in its image. (Where's Jean Baudrillard when we need him?) Johnny Depp's foppish, mercurial, sexually ambiguous and probably very smelly scoundrel is the morally fluid, completely unreliable soul of the film, not to mention a welcome change from the drippy, neurotic heroes that have come to define what it means to be super in the movies lately.

The sources of Jack Sparrow's appeal are too numerous and obvious to count, but it's his lesser qualities that make him refreshing. You can't blame a guy for consistently putting his self-preservation first when everyone he meets wants to kiss, kill or eat him. For all his bluster, Sparrow is as vulnerable as his name implies -- and the forces out to get him have multiplied and grown more fearsome.

First, there is Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), a pirate hunter for the East India Trading Co. and a slick proto-corporate villain who informs Gov. Swann (Jonathan Pryce) that "loyalty is no longer the currency of the realm," as "currency is the new currency." Cutler rudely crashes the wedding of the plucky Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) with a pair of matching his-and-hers arrest warrants. Unless Will tracks down Jack and procures his broken compass for Cutler, he and Elizabeth will go to the gallows.

Jack is busily evading Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), squid-faced lord of the underwater world, to whom he owes a hefty Faustian debt, and trying to find the mysterious key to the Dead Man's Chest, where Davy Jones' heart is stored. He enlists Will's help in exchange for the compass, which turns out to work fine for everyone else -- the compass points to whatever the holder's heart most desires, a problem for Jack, who is hardly the steadfast and ardent type. Meanwhile, the disgraced and now derelict former Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport) joins Jack's crew but has other plans for the chest.

To this wild goose chase in triplicate, Gore Verbinski adds a love triangle that looks a little like a quadrangle and about five times the special effects that the first "Pirates" had. It's normal to expect some bloating with age, but by the time the second rolling waterwheel gag comes along, I found myself pining for the Shaker-like simplicity of, I don't know, Versailles. The story is predicated on complex mercantile negotiations that end up in a scramble of standoffs and double-crosses, but the surfeit of characters and story lines leech it of its tension and tangle it up in ancillary threads -- the reunion subplot between Will and his father, "Bootstrap" Bill Turner (Stellan Skarsgard), turns out to be one subplot too many. And the scenes aboard the Flying Dutchman feel especially boggy -- effects for effects' sake. The movie begins where the last one left off and ends -- with the return of Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) -- where the next one will begin. In between, there's much more padding than was necessary.

Like Jack's heart, "Dead Man's Chest" is unsure of what it wants, so it takes the omnivorous approach, and all of the story lines suffer for it. Elizabeth and Will's love affair, though cruelly interrupted, gives off a distinct post-honeymoon weariness, and the reunion of Will and Bootstrap feels about as joyous as one between a deadbeat dad and his grown-up son made good. A welcome surprise is Norrington (Jack Davenport), a former prig whose rock-bottom bounce liberates his inner scoundrel.

Intermittently fun and high-spirited, "Dead Man's Chest" sags under the weight of its own running time, which clocks in at about 2 1/2 hours. That's a lot of time to commit to watching people chase one another around, turn, and chase one another the other way. At half the running time, it would have made for an amusing time-killer; as it is -- no matter how clever, energetic and beautifully designed -- it borders on waste.


'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of adventure violence, including frightening images

Walt Disney Pictures presents. In association with Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Director of photography Dariusz Wolski. Editors Craig Wood, Stephen Rivkin. Music by Hans Zimmer. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes.

In general release.

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