At a certain reduced level, the secret to a sequel is easy: More, and better. The ugly fact, though, is that Hollywood doesn't necessarily know how to make 'better' ... and the uglier fact is that they often make up for the first ugly fact by adding twice as much 'more.' So it is with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, a big-budget sequel to the satisfying pseudo-swashbuckling of 2003's The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. I loved Curse of the Black Pearl about as much as you can love a film based on a theme park ride, even if the last act of Curse went drearily on with too much ship-to-shore to-ing and fro-ing, as if you were watching a filmed re-enactment of the logic puzzle about the fox, the chicken and the bag of wheat.
But when 2003's Pirates was good, it danced; Johnny Depp played Capt. Jack Sparrow as a cross between Dean Martin and Errol Flynn, and Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley gave us a nice balance of hot and heroic. This is why it's so sad to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest -- a movie waterlogged and weighed down by plot devices and extraneous characters that's got all the sprightly grace of a man long drowned.
Dead Man's Chest starts with a bang, certainly -- with Bloom's Will Turner and Knightley's Elizabeth Swann both arrested for their complicity in helping Depp's Sparrow escape. But screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio take that nice, tight bump of a start and lard it with invention after invention, and succeed in boring the audience absolutely. There are unique keys; drawing of said unique keys; magical compasses; signifying tumors; magic jars of earth; official letters; disembodied hearts... The script for this film groans beneath object after object, quest after quest, complication after complication -- as if Elliott and Rossio had gone shopping for plot devices in the bulk aisle. It's not that Dead Man's Chest peters out in the final act; it's that it peters out in the first five minutes, with writing misfire after writing misfire. When I say 'writing misfire,' I feel obligated to give an example, so here's just one: I actually checked my watch when we had Depp, Bloom and Knightley in the same location: One hour and forty-five minutes into a two-and-a-half-hour film, and the leads are finally sharing a scene.
Curse of the Black Pearl was wrapped in a certain amount of supernatural hugger-mugger, but Dead Man's Chest is, again, swathed in it until it's immobile -- right down to the bad guy, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), a half-human, half-fish pirate buccaneer, who looks like the corporate logo if H.P. Lovecraft's estate started bottling a cheap rum cooler. Jones' heart itself is locked away in the title chest, and that gives Jones control of the Kraken -- a special-effects Leviathan that can crack a ship apart in its howling maw and grasping tentacles -- that bolsters Jones' crew of semi-human sea-creature pirates.
So, yeah, you get to see a half-human, half-hammerhead shark pirate, or Jones playing a pipe organ, classic-movie-villain-style, with his beard of tentacles rocking the high notes. (And yet, I still thought: Ewwwwww, piano mouth.) But special effects are a bust when they're neither special nor affecting, or aren't explained cleanly and clearly. Are Jones and his mean undead? Live, but accursed? How do they teleport from ship to ship? Can they be cured? Can they be killed?
And this isn't insular, nerdish nitpicking; these are the kind of missing foundation pieces of storytelling that can throw an entire film into the dustbin of forgetability. So while you're supposed to be appreciating Bloom's Will Turner asserting himself and growing into a hero, you're actually wondering: Back it up now -- why can't Davy Jones set foot on dry land but once every 10 years? Bloom's performance is actually adequate: the actor's a little scruffier now (or our memories of pale, perfect Legolas are fading), and it serves him well. Knightley is appealing enough as well, even if she's saddled with the task of setting up the plot of the third film with a moment that makes no sense in light of who her character ostensibly is.
And Depp? Well, Capt. Jack Sparrow is a great example of how Hollywood likes to turn garnishes into main courses. Depp stole the first movie, but only because his hands were full with the burden of carrying it. Capt. Jack is too slight in nature and too broad in execution to be the center of any film, although we certainly get plenty of him. I liked Depp's shtick the first time around -- actually, I thought it was funny and sly -- but now Capt. Jack is like Kramer: He shows up rolling his eyes and we're expected to howl with laughter.
Still, show me two men sword fighting on a rolling waterwheel as it careens through tropical scenery and I'll pop to attention and smile; the stunt sequences in the film are all tops, and director Gore Verbinski still gives every shot an oak-and-velvet sheen. Maybe -- just maybe -- Dead Man's Chest feels limpid and overlong because it's just throat-clearing and set-up for the third installment, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Perhaps that explains why we got such brief glimpses of a confusing multitude of new characters. Perhaps that's why there's an after-credits 'surprise' that feels like a cockroach in a fortune cookie for all the 'fun' it provides. Maybe we're just supposed to pay Disney for the privilege of watching a slow, lazy set-up and wait agape for the big finish. And yet, I doubt it: If At World's End is any thing like Dead Man's Chest, it'll just be a further demonstration of how, tragically, modern moviemaking is turning into an ongoing demonstration of how more and more means less and less.
(For a different perspective on Pirates, check out Scott Weinberg's review here at Cinematical.com. ...)