Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest Review
2006 was the year of returns. There was Superman, of course. And the triumphant recall to duty for James Bond 007 in the excellent Casino Royale. But, hoving-in off the horizon before either of those two was the return that I, and certainly my young son, were most looking forward to - the return of Captain Jack Sparrow, the greatest cinematic character that the last few years has produced, in Pirates Of The Caribbean - Dead Man's Chest. The first film, a surprise runaway hit, was the clearest example of good old fashioned, action-packed entertainment. It threw almost everything into the mix - pirates, skeletons, curses, duels and sea-battles - and stirred them up with a double broadside of humour, chills and excitement. The film was a sensation, and a sequel was absolutely guaranteed. Of course, uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio maintain that they had a trilogy in mind all along though, frankly, I don't believe a word of it. And so, with the enormous success and profit from the first one under their swashbuckled belts, the team set out to make parts 2 and 3. A huge undertaking, especially when you consider that, Rings-style, they were going to make them back-to-back. Though, it seems to have been a gamble well worth taking as, to date, Dead Man's Chest has been the biggest film of the year and its box-office clout has established it a position high up in the list of most successful films of all time. That's not bad going for a film that, to be honest, really isn't very good. After viewing the film at the cinema - first showing on opening day, with a very excited child bedecked in Jack Sparrow costume beside me - I felt thoroughly disappointed and demoralised at what I reckoned to be a huge letdown. Mind you, I did appear to be the only person in the world that thought this. So, maybe it was just down to the arrogant critic in me determined to be different.
Well, here's my chance to see who is right about Jack's salty return.
“It's Lord, now ... actually.”
The plot is a long and convoluted one which packs in a vast number of contrivances to ensure that the full roster of characters, known and loved from the first time around, are elaborately foisted together again. Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley) are arrested just before their marriage by the nefarious Beckett, a small, but agreeably nasty Tom Hollander, working for The East India Trading Company, and face execution for their part in aiding and abetting a certain infamous pirate. Beckett wants the mysterious compass that this pirate, Jack Sparrow (naturally) has and is prepared to offer Royal pardons to his captives if Will can obtain it for him. Jack, meanwhile, has other problems on his plate. The captain of The Flying Dutchman, another ghostly ship of the high seas, wants to claim his soul to settle an old debt and is prepared to unleash the mighty Kraken from the depths to ensure that he gets it. Jack must get his trembling, black-spotted mitts on the fabled Dead Man's Chest if he stands a chance of outrunning his destiny yet again. The paths of all will cross, alliances will be formed and betrayals will ensue. Even the determined ex-Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport) is set upon avenging his misfortunes in the wake of losing Jack last time around and, now dishevelled and slumming it around the seven seas, finds the one thing that may bring his obsession to a close. It's a breakneck, round-the-world-and-back-again screenplay that jettisons logic, character development and anything resembling a strong, linear narrative in order that as many skirmishes, monster-mashes and frantic set-piece mayhem can be sledge-hammered in. And, in non-stop spectacle, the film succeeds admirably. The cavalcade of riotous episodes just doesn't stop, but in their eagerness and enthusiasm to ladle event after incident, the writing team forget the simple things like plot coherence and established motivations. The narrative drive that propelled the first film which was, to be honest, still a little too long and not unable to repeat itself towards the end, is wholly lacking here with characters off on their own journeys yet wildly colliding with one another again before any kind of individual resolution can be made. Worse yet, the development arcs that Jack, Will and Elizabeth went on in the last film, are hurled to the wind this time out, with only their basic thumbnail characterisations remaining. Will's reunion with his long-lost father, Bootstrap Bill (played beneath some scaly prosthetics by Stellan Skarsgard) has some moments of poignancy, though. And the dependable Gibbs, played by Kevin R. McNally is still as canny as ever.
“Mark my words, what bodes ill for Jack Sparrow, bodes ill for us all.”
The mistakes made with this film were immediately apparent during my first viewing back in May. Whilst my son just revelled in the fun and games on the cannibal island, I just rolled my eyes at the enormous indulgence of a sequence so ineptly designed merely to throw some characters together again. Mackenzie Crook's and Lee Arenberg's clownish cutthroats Riggeti and Pintel arriving in a rowing boat with the jailhouse dog may be a nice familiar sight, but it makes no sense whatsoever. Will Turner leaves Elizabeth languishing in a cell and promises to be back soon, we then have a montage of him journeying from island to island in his search for Jack - voyages that would take ages to complete even around the close-knit islands of the Caribbean. No planes in those days, remember. If she didn't have the fortune to escape in the meantime she'd have been a rotting carcass by the time he got back anyway. Never mind the execution. And are we really expected to believe that the crew of The Edinburgh - another vessel that strays into the plot - can't spot Keira Knightley hiding amongst them. I know that's a broad-brimmed hat she's wearing but that can't be enough to disguise what must be the most gorgeous sailor ever to swab the decks. Daftness such as this, and many other elements of the film, is all forgivable in the context of the happy-go-lucky adventure romp attitude that Verbinski wants to achieve. They're annoying niggles that professional writers should surely have been able to overcome but, in the spirit of thrilling escapades and goofball misadventures, I am prepared to accept them. And it is a lot easier to do that on DVD, folks! Believe me.
But it is the tampering with the main man that I cannot abide. You see, this time around, Captain Jack Sparrow is simply not the same person.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of your carbuncle?”
Johnny Depp, the Great Johnny Depp, does not perform our favourite pirate as well as he did last time out. And definitely nowhere near as well as we had every right to expect him to have done. But, most damaging of all, is the fact that he was probably not allowed to. In the first film, he was a foppish, flamboyant fool, yes, but he also had cunning, seafaring and sword-fighting skills and a witty, nay, “savvy” demeanour that meant he had the upper hand in any situation. Here, however, he is just a fool - a cowardly, wimpish stooge whose pratfalls, inane gibberish, preening and all-round clumsiness (did we really need that “jar of dirt” fall from the deck?) hamper, divert and detract from one of modern cinema's cleverest and most inspired creations? The first Pirates had tons of comedy amid the whirlwind of fights and antics, and it worked just fine. The duelling was hugely entertaining, and actually helped to bring out and establish the characters of Jack and Will - and it was very accomplished and well-choreographed stuff too, with Jack, especially, showing prowess, fancy footwork and the witty remarks of someone who is eminently confident of their abilities. The second helping forgets that Jack can fight and is just content to have him gurning and swinging his arms about a lot, before running off and/or falling over. His intelligence and “savvy” have clearly taken backseats as well, with him blundering from one haphazard chapter to another with nary design or objectivity of his own - merely a join-the-dots placement in situations by a lazy screenplay that just wants to send him up all the time. Where is his estranged nobility? He wouldn't shoot Will last time not just because the shot wasn't meant for him, but because he liked and respected him ... “please move!” he implores. Here, he just doesn't care about anyone other than himself, which may hold true for most pirates, but not for this pirate. His journey last time saw him embrace the camaraderie and respect of newfound friends and allies and the impression given was that they would remain in each others' trust throughout further scrapes. But all that is lost in the sea-spray for this trip.
“Why is the rum always gone?”
Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann hardly come up smelling of roses, either. The pair have been quite cack-handedly shoe-horned back into a jumbled road crash of ideas and scenarios that sees them, and Jack for that matter, pursuing their own wayward agendas across the seas (a la Empire Strikes Back's splitting up of the main cast's missions) with nothing but Bloom's Errol Flynn-derring-do and Knightley's ultra-lovely - but naffly heroic - set decoration to commend their involvement. It shows a singular failing from writers Elliott and Rossio to comprehend what made the maiden voyage so memorable. It was Jack ... and Jack alone. He was the character that we all loved. He came out of the blue and keel-hauled cinematic convention. Dizzy, drunken and deliberately avant-garde, he cut the most bizarre anti-hero you could ever wish for, and the clever money would have been to deliver him an altogether new adventure and a fresh set of characters to bounce off. But no, Bruckheimer's and Verbinski's opting to play it safe and just bring them all back - even that damned undead monkey - is pandering to the very formula that they, themselves, bravely broke with Pirates 1.
But that's Hollywood all over. They have a success - even a left-field one - that charts new water and then they just regurgitate all over again the bits they reckoned worked best.
But, as I said earlier, Dead Man's Chest is one of the most successful films ever made. So, what do I know?
“Watch your back.”
“It's my front I'm worrying about ...”
And yet, for all that ripping apart that I've just done, I actually found watching it at home on DVD a very enjoyable experience. I think the movie holds water far better on the small screen than on the large. It's many, many lame bits are far easier to dismiss and the predominant sense of fun and exhilaration is much better maintained, despite the overlong running time. I love the bone-cage sequence, especially when we cut to the captives' faces as the whole shebang flies out over the edge of the ridge. This entire visual idea does get repeated later on with the silly-but-smirk-inducing waterwheel fight, but you've got to admire the sheer enthusiasm to come up with show-stopping stunts such as these. Jack becoming a human shish-kebab seemed irritating the first time I saw it, but now with my son trying to re-enact the scene with a tent-pole, a few slices of bread and a couple of coloured paper balls (like we'd let him use real fruit!) and giggling like crazy, I have to appreciate the simple fact that its target audience just love Jack Sparrow no matter what he does.
“You are neither dead, nor dying. What is your purpose here?”
And there are plenty of other areas where the film gets it completely right. Jack's fabulous introduction, escaping from a dreaded pirate prison-island in a coffin is almost but not quite as effective as his sailing into Port Royal on the mast of sinking boat in the first one. His jungle-speak with the cannibal tribe is majestic improvisation of the highest order - “Him - eunuchy. Snip-snip!” The Kraken is overused but is still a meaty enough monster to pull off some mighty, carnage-strewn action set-pieces. Kirk Douglas and James Mason never faced anything as brutal as this in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Swamp-witch Tia Darma (Naome Harris) supplies some sultry spooks from within her eerie, candlelit bayou, her Jamaican patois, gnarled teeth and sickly, sweat-glistening skin not masking an exotic Creole flavour of eroticism. Oh, and keep your eyes peeled for where the monkey heads when we first meet Tia Darma. But barnacled Bootstrap Bill and his crustaceous cronies among the crew of The Flying Dutchman are bilge-oozing works of art, though. An inspired array of nodule, spine and sucker-encrusted ne'er-do-wells, Davy Jones' mob are a sea-food platter for the eye. There's not been a makeup and CG-fx catwalk as complex or as fascinating as this since Peter Jackson unleashed his Orc hordes. And these guys don't just look good in the shadows or in the inky blue depths of the sea; they stand up to repeated scrutiny even in the dazzling sunshine of a tropical island. Hats off to the Hammerheaded First Mate, Macchus, and to the Rob Bottin-inspired, head-in-a-shell scuttling about through the undergrowth, Thing-style. But it is Davy Jones, himself, who must take the prize as the best dressed fish-dish on show. The most impressive motion-captured CG creation thus far, surpassing even Gollum and King Kong for solidity, intricacy and downright believable interaction with live actors. Bill Nighy's eyes staring out in lucid blue from that sickly mass of tentacles, suckers, gills and slime, his voice dredging up a sea-bed concoction of unfathomable dialects in one sinuous, salty brogue, is pure genius and simply the best thing in the movie - a fantastic evolution from the moonlit skeletons seen last time around. And moments of quiet, mournful recollection add depth and pathos for the man within the monster as he contemplates a lost love and the consequences of a terrible pact. He may be a “Slimy git” but he more than holds his own when compared to the, admittedly great, Geoffrey Rush's Captain Barbossa, despite the latter's ability to inject more intelligence and humour to the mix.
“You smell funny!”
For the first outing, the film was scored by Klaus Badelt, one of Hans Zimmer's Media Ventures associates, and he delivered a fine, exciting and very Zimmer-esque piece of work. This time Zimmer, himself, has taken on board the task of composing and producing the score - and with very mixed results, I'm afraid. Being a fan of Zimmer's audience-dividing music, I had been quite looking forward to hearing what he would come up with for this new adventure. But, although he wisely opts to create new themes and set-pieces instead of simply rehashing the original tracks, his choices are largely un-involving and, at times, downright inappropriate. The music accompanying the Kraken sequences is grimly thrashed out, rock rough-housing that doesn't fit the imagery or the time period at all. At other times, though, he manages to weave familiar old themes into new cues, creating some intriguing mixtures. There's a nice melancholy piece that accompanies Davy Jones' wistful memories and the tavern-brawl has a raucously catchy period scoring that suits the knockabout skirmish to a tee. Still, there is nothing that he has added that is anywhere near as memorable as the original Jack Sparrow theme.
So, considering my reservations, Dead Man's Chest is ultimately a thick slice of rollicking fantasy that contains just enough savvy to stay afloat. And kudos must go to the courage of Rossio and Elliott to end the film on a semi-downer, again like Empire Strikes Back - although it was an even better stroke to then give us a final reveal that brilliantly raises the spirits once again. I may have sounded quite harsh in my opinion of what, at the end of the day, is just escapist fun, but that is only because my expectations were so high in the first place, the original movie having become a firm favourite of mine. I have yet to watch the two films back to back to see how well they sit together, but with my son cavorting around in bandana, belt, compass and tattoos, I think that event will come sooner rather than later. At any rate, the pair of us will still be there next year for the first possible showing of Part 3. I might even wear a bandanna, myself.
A final mention must also go to the great 3D slipcase cover for this R1 release, which makes effective use of a hidden reflective layer to add ghostly shimmering life to the artwork. Nicely done.