In Hollywood, success comes with its own peculiar brand of curses, most notably the expectation that one will follow that success with a sequel that will match, if not vastly exceed, the creative and commercial accomplishments of the original. Since any successful film is a matter of artistic and technical alchemy outside the control and understanding of us mere mortals, it’s little surprise that most sequels end up being pale, stunted, mutated offspring of the first movie. To understand why this happens is that when they call it the entertainment “industry,” they are not kidding. At a certain level of management, people view a movie as little different from a Toyota Camry. As long as you include the same ingredients, each iteration that rolls off the assembly line should look the same as the one before it and everyone who lined up to buy the last one should do the same for the next.
When the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was a surprise hit in 2003, it was probably inevitable that Disney would come shopping around for a sequel or two, but director Gore Verbinski and his team claim to have be surprised by the request. This may account for the fact that much of the film was not yet written, even as it went before the cameras, which explains the somewhat aimless and disjointed nature of the narrative. Even so, the unmistakable craft and indisputable energy of what is on the screen at any given moment gives the movie an entertainment value that overrides any minor deficiencies in the storytelling.
As the film picks up, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) have had the rudest of interruptions to their wedding day. They’ve arrested for aiding the escape of Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and sentence to hang by Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), a pompous representative of the British East India Trading Company, which is determined to stamp out all traces of piracy in the Caribbean. Will is given one chance to regain their freedom and save Elizabeth’s life. He has to seek out Jack Sparrow and recover a seemingly worthless item that Beckett wants. Unwilling to trust Will, however, Elizabeth’s father, the governor (Jonathan Pryce) springs her from jail on his own.
Jack has his own problems at the moment, however. Back in command of the Black Pearl, he is desperately seeking to stay away from deep water until he can recover an item that he needs as leverage against Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), captain of the Flying Dutchman and a demonic overlord of those who have died at sea. It appears that he struck a deal with Jones that gave him command of the Pearl in exchange for servitude on the Dutchman. Now Jack wants nothing more than to avoid repayment of that debt. Unfortunately, Jones has unleashed his “pet,” the Kraken, a giant squid-like creature that sucks ships into the depths in one lightning attack.
This movie is largely a series of a breathless action scenes connected by occasionally thin narrative tissue, but that does not keep it from being an entertaining thrill ride. Johnny Depp steps right back into the role Jack Sparrow without missing a step. While Orlando Bloom still seems hemmed in by his role as the upright and virtuous hero, Keira Knightley has invested the role of Elizabeth with some swagger that, while decidedly anachronistic, is nonetheless fun to watch.
As the villain, Davy Jones is no Captain Barbossa, mostly lacking in the human dimension that made his predecessor both tragic and fearsome. Fortunately, Bill Nighy invests the character with an oversized helping of quirks that help make him memorable in a way he might otherwise not be.
Dead Man’s Chest manages to retain most of the original movie’s virtues and it doesn’t hurt that Curse of the Black Pearl had most of this film’s faults. It’s great entertainment that achieves a level of technical, if not artistic, brilliance.