Pirates of the Caribbean returns to theaters for more summer swashbuckling, only they may have forgotten to buckle their swash. The sequel is subtitled Dead Man's Chest, and pits the incomparable Captain Jack Sparrow against the owner of that chest, Davy Jones. You may remember him from his locker, and as a founding member of The Monkees.
Unlike his modern pop-culture counterpart, this fishy Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) is a decent musician, and he rolls across the Earth's oceans in a ghostly galleon capturing souls and playing a mean pipe organ. In the last movie, Captain Jack got his beloved ship the Black Pearl back, but now he may have to give her up again. Davy Jones and his crustacean-encrusted crew of the damned are out to get him. Jack, it seems, owes Davy a debt, having promised him his soul in exchange for the captain's berth of a certain black-sailed pirate ship.
The centerpiece of a successful Pirates movie must be Johnny Depp. Happily, he's back here doing his drunken, leering, Keith Richards thing, yet Depp is somehow less interesting this time around. He's not doing anything new, simply repeating the performance we've already seen. Well, he's less of a scoundrel, probably because he's too busy flailing his arms around and running to get down to good old-fashioned skullduggery. That's the story for most of the movie: beloved characters from Curse of the Black Pearl running around being chased, trampled, and rolled down hills. Where the last movie had piracy, fencing, gun battles, and drunken singing; Dead Man's Chest has CGI beasties and lots of screaming. The film feels forced, as director Gore Verbinski struggles mightily to up the ante for his sequel, only to miss out on a lot of what made the original so fun in the first place. I'm not sure Verbinski quite gets it. All we want is a hefty dose of swinging swordplay and a lot of Jack Sparrow. Where's the sword fighting? The pillaging? Drunken romps with hideous women? Curse of the Black Pearl did an excellent job of balancing the supernatural with the film's simpler pleasures of pirates just being pirates. When CGI was used to show off some creepy ghoul it was done beautifully, almost as an aside to the story rather than as a centerpiece. Here the oversized effects are the focus, with the film's now less interesting characters left with no choice but to jostle for space around them. Is this a pirate movie, or are we watching a maritime remake of Ghostbusters? Though the movie falls a little too in love with its big effects budget, at least the effects are rather good. Davy Jones in particular is a masterfully realized featured creature. Half-squid, half man, he oozes and wheezes across the deck of his ship (the Flying Dutchman, natch) with an air of inevitability. Jones hasn't the screen presence of Geoffrey Rush's iconic Captain Barbossa from the first film, but Bill Nighy does a remarkable job buried under thick, viscous layers of prosthetics and makeup. Despite its flaws, a lot of people are probably going to quite enjoy Dead Man's Chest, and for those who don't, the good news here is that Disney still has one more movie to get it right. This is the first of two Pirates sequels filmed simultaneously, and like so many other trilogy 'tweeners, Dead Man's Chest is more of a setup than a complete piece. Even as a sort of hum-drum, overlong 'tweener, this second one isn't a total waste. Most of the best moments are references back to the last movie, but Captain Jack has one or two familiarly brilliant spasms mixed in with his excessive windmilling, and the rest of the cast seems poised to do something big in the next sequel. They just don't get around to it in this one.