If you're a big fan of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, then the massive, sprawling, and almost exhaustively entertaining sequel Dead Man's Chest is going to remind you of either The Empire Strikes Back or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Either way, it's worth the price of a movie ticket to find out, isn't it? One of those sequels is the most exciting and dramatic ever made ... and the other one's a big sloppy mess that's a huge ball of fun. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest falls squarely between the two.

Before I commence with my second Pirates tongue-bath, I feel it's important to make one thing very clear: I am an unapologetic and rather enthusiastic "geek" when it comes to this series.  This might help to explain why the sequel's narrative logjams and occasional moments of plot-structure confusion didn't bother me all that much. This is certainly not a flawless piece of entertainment (indeed, I still like POTC1 a bit more), but this follow-up is the crown jewel of this summer season -- and it's packed with more multiplex treasures than you'll know what to do with.  
 
The plot is contorted on the surface and simple as pie underneath: All our old friends are back, and they're each in desperate need of a very important relic. When we last saw Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley), they looked to be headed for the wedding chapel. As chapter two opens, we learn that the happy endings will have to wait: The young lovers have been arrested by a conniving new villain, and Will is given little choice but to hit the high seas and track down Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), the only man who can save Ms. Swann from a jail cell. And, yes, there's a whole lot more.

(Every time you start mentally tripping over the numerous and semi-circuitous plot threads, just remember one thing: It's a treasure hunt. Everyone's after A) a compass, B) a key, C) a chest, or D) the mysterious contents of the chest. Just focus on each character's "why" and you'll be just fine.)

Some might say that POTC2 takes its good, sweet time before it explodes with numerous wonderful crescendos of kinetic action and frequent doses of character-based comedy, and that's a fair complaint, I guess. Then again, I've somehow grown to actually LIKE all these characters, so if the sequel wants to meander around just a little bit while allowing Jack and Will and Elizabeth and Norrington and Gibbs and etc. to share all sorts of plans, problems, and conversations -- well, that's just fine by me. Suck all the action out of this flick and you'd still have a damn fine pirate comedy with really awesome set design.

The head villain this time around (among many) is the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his crew of outrageously misshapen shipmates. Cursed to roam the sea for centuries, Jones has a serious score to settle with ol' Jack Sparrow -- and he has a pretty nifty arsenal at his disposal. In addition to his undead ghost ship and a bunch of amazingly nasty sidekicks, Jones keeps a multi-tentacled water pet who's probably the size of a football stadium. To say the special effects employed to bring this waterlogged menagerie to life are "impressive" would be a slap in the face. Between Davy Jones, his crew, and his Kraken, POTC2 has some of the most dazzling special effects ever created. And here's the good part: The CGI wizardry is being used to not only dazzle your eyes, but to complement a story filled with likable characters who say witty things. Weird, I know. But very fun.

Series stars Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley seem to get most of the press, but there's a small boat-load of supporting actors which deserves an accolade or two. (For the record, Depp is as fun as ever, Bloom is just a little less bland, and Ms. Knightley is still a doll.) But how about Jack Davenport's about-turn as a stuffy commodore turned desperate sleazoid? A clever bit of character development there, and Davenport has a lot of fun with the transformation. Also back again is Kevin McNally as Captain Jack's loyal sidekick, and the actor somehow manages to steal a few scenes away from Depp's lovable scoundrel and a whole bunch of crazy monsters. Jonathan Pryce pops back up as Governor Swann, and earns one solid laugh despite having only a few short scenes. Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook become the R2-D2 & C-3PO of the Pirates series and deliver a few stray chuckles along the way.

New to the series are the excellent Bill Nighy (as Davy Jones), Stellan Skarsgard (as one of the damned-yet-sympathetic sailors who also happens to be Will's long-lost dad), Naomie Harris (as a creepy fortune teller who's pulling a few strings of her own), and Tom Hollander as the snide and hateful chief of the East India Trading Company. So not only are you getting a comedy, an adventure, and a small romance for your $9.50; you're also getting a pretty excellent ensemble full of colorful characters. Plus there's tons of action, a funny dog, and an undead monkey.

So while, sure, some of the "magic" may have dissipated because this is, after all, the second time around, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are careful to dig up new and interesting ways for their characters to keep bouncing off of one another. One of the most entertaining pleasures of POTC2 is seeing all the old knuckleheads again and seeing how they manage to team up and/or screw each other over. Some get to be heroes, others get to show their darker side -- and if you're the sort who watched the Pirates 1 DVD at least half-a-dozen times, then you'll absolutely salivate at the feast offered here.

And I'm not just talking about high-end action and wild-eyed escapism. This sequel maintains the crafty wit and the affection for character that its predecessor laid down so smoothly and surprisingly. On a technical level, this is a Popcorn Movie with a fine pedigree: Dariusz Wolski's beautiful cinematography, Rick Heinrichs' stunning set design, Hans Zimmer's pulpy & rousing musical score, and the reams of practical and computer effects... It all makes for one massive meal of a movie. By the time it's all over, POTC2 has delivered more toe-tappin' eye-candy than the last three summer movies combined, but what the fans will love most are the character reprisals, the semi-soap-operatic plot divergences, and the satisfyingly nasty surprises. And if the thing wraps up with a devilishly devious collection of cliffhangers ... oh well, I can wait till next May for my final buccaneer barbecue.

Bottom Line from a hardcore Pirates fan: It's not as good as the first one, but (despite a slow start) the sequel's a whole lot of slick, silly and occasionally smart fun. For another (less enthusiastic) take on the flick, check out what my buddy James Rocchi has to say.