Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
A great third act and the promise for a better part three help compensate for an overlong sequel and an off-target Johnny Depp
WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is by no means a total loss, nor is it the unexpected success of the rousing first movie, a remarkable bit of kismet and alchemy that resulted in the resurrection of a sorely missed genre of movies and the kookiest, most brilliant comedic performance since Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda.
The usual symptoms plague Dead Man’s Chest. It’s too long by half an hour (maybe 45 minutes), it relies on goofy set pieces instead of the more grounded fight choreography seen in the first movie, and Johnny Depp had read so much of his own good press regarding his performance in the part one that he forgets to actually play his role until a third of the way into the sequel – but by the time he remembers to play his role (and not the Saturday Night Live parody of it), Depp is mired in the leaden second act of Dead Man’s Chest, most of which takes place on the visually striking but terminally dreary Flying Dutchman, commanded by the movie’s chief villain, the legendary Davy Jones.
None of these choices is a death knell, but simple overshooting and leisurely editing render inert the salty mythology and mysticism that served part one so well.
Case in point: Clearly, one of the charms of these movies is how they mine the rich imagery of the Disney rides. Near the end of the first act of Dead Man’s Chest, our heroes venture into a grim bayou littered with forgotten shacks and sparkling with fireflies – the first place you sail through on the ride in the original Disneyland park (the one in Florida is much briefer).
Side note about the Disney theme parks: OK, I’ve already outed myself as a Disney theme part twit with the last sentence. I’m an old-school Disney theme park fan and something of an apologist for them, even in the face of the company’s blatant cost-cutting greed. I understand they recently added Johnny Depp’s likeness to the Pirates of the Caribbean rides. This bums me out a bit, but not nearly as much as the full-on ass-fucking Disney gave their Haunted Mansion ride by completely changing it into a Nightmare Before Christmas attraction. I mean – come on! Just build a new fucking ride!
Our heroes eventually climb up a ladder to a shack-on-stilts where they meet with a voodoo priestess – and the scene completely short-circuits. It’s such a shame, because director Gore Verbnski handled the supernatural creepiness of the cursed Black Pearl sailors so well in part one, and he was saddled with the near-insurmountable task of keeping those effects-heavy scenes from descending into madness. With the voodoo priestess scene, he had no such special effects to deal with – only a bunch of talented actors and a beautifully designed interior. Somehow while making Dead Man’s Chest, the filmmakers fell in love with slow-developing, ultra-dry humor. Again, this isn’t a deadly sin – the Monty Python boys essentially introduced all Americans to dry humor at fucking gunpoint – but too much can ruin the pacing of an entire act of a movie.
Furthermore, besides the major players (and one fun cameo), Dead Man’s Chest brings back only two characters for comic relief: the two main pirate henchmen from the Black Pearl. Remember them? One is tall and thin and has a glass eye? The other is short, fat and balding? “‘Ello, poppet”? I was happy to see them back, to be sure, but for my money, the filmmakers brought back the wrong comic relief; they should have brought back the two bumbling redcoats seen briefly in part one. They share a minor scene with Depp’s Jack Sparrow near the beginning, and it’s a corker. I have nothing against the two pirates – more pirates is always a good thing – but those two goofball redcoats rescued the first act of part one by turning dense exposition into top-flight comedy. They would have been welcome back.
But let’s talk about what Dead Man’s Chest – and this franchise – does well: The filmmakers behind these movies – which, once again, are based on theme park rides – have the audacity to introduce heavy themes and deeply striking imagery into very lightweight material. Seriously, I appreciate that they put some thought into how to use the image of a skeleton at the helm of a doomed pirate ship, a fleeting image from the ride. They conceived an entire grand seafaring myth to justify the image – cursed, undead pirates who are revealed as walking-dead skeletons by moonlight – and they commited to their undead-ness to the end, when Geoffrey Rush’s cursed pirate purges the curse from his soul only to be killed immediately.
His final words: “I feel cold.”
Again, let me stress that I was totally unprepared for a line and a moment right out of Beckett to come out of a fucking Disney movie based on a fucking Disney ride.
And to be sure, Dead Man’s Chest features more of this. The movie’s finest achievement in character: Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), last seen as the competent and dedicated British Naval officer who lost the love of Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan. In Dead Man’s Chest, he reappears as a failed drunk, drummed out of the Navy and obsessed with killing Sparrow. He goes on to build an intense and unpleasant performance that culminates in betrayal. Both of these movies strike a weird balance between historical costume drama and supernatural action thriller, and they resolve that conflict largely in how they deal with Norrington, who begins the series fully grounded in the rational costume drama, but ends Dead Man’s Chest as a full believer in the supernatural craziness that seems to plague the world of pirating. Norrington uses his belief to triumph over the supernatural and bargain his way back into the costume drama – he steals the immortal heart of Davy Jones to regain his Naval comission. Nice!
Side note about Jack Davenport: Davenport deserves many kudos for his great performance in both of these movies. It would have been very easy to play Norrington as a twit in part one, but instead he played him as a stout heart right out of C.S. Forester. He continues his badassery in part two with a grim turn that reminds me of the magnificent journey Alexis Denisof brought us on during his tenure on Angel – and that is very high praise.
Other conflicts between these two worlds feel unresolved, though. The filmmakers introduce a perfectly good motif by dropping in occasionally on an artist painting in the lines on a map of the New World, but next to the sweeping apocalypse of the seafaring mythology, the real world stuff feels tiny. (The subtitle for part three, At World’s End, doesn’t promise a righting of this imbalance.)
The aforementioned leaden second act also features some great stuff in the guise of an unrecognizable Stellan Skarsgard as Orlando Bloom’s doomed father. Once again, special-effects-laden goofiness yields grim thematic goodness. Squid-faced monster Davy Jones (a sturdy Bill Nighy) offers dying men the chance to serve on his crew “for 100 years,” though it seems far more like an eternal deal with the devil.
And that’s where, once again, these movies stumble upon good drama. We see dozens of dazzling, barnacled, half-man, half-sea-creature monstrosities in the crew of the Flying Dutchman, all of them in various states of transformation from man to fully mutated creature. One crewman resembles a walking coral reef, his face the spiny underside of a sea anemone. As with the walking skeletons in part one, I admire how humorlessly they handle these monsters. Indeed, the only laugh comes from a sea-monster-guy with his head encased in a shell. (He gets his head cut off and complains to his body. Har har.) But even when this guy’s body abandons his head, his head sprouts legs and crawls in pursuit, drawing a big “ewwww!” from the crowd and evoking happy-scary-prickly memories of John Carpenter’s The Thing.
But back to Skarsgard’s performance as Orlando Bloom’s father. By making Davy Jones the devil for seamen, the filmmakers not only were able to place hell on earth, they were able to let Bloom’s Will Turner visit his father there. (Oh, another nice touch: Over the course of the movie, we get to watch Skarsgard mutate into more of a sea monster.) The portrayal of hell as a dank, drab place that the living can visit calls to mind no less than the finest of Greek mythology. Indeed, the filmmakers continue their liberal cherry-picking of mythology by giving Davy Jones’ Flying Dutchman the power to summon the Kraken, the death-bringer of Poseidon. Another Greek touch: Jack Sparrow makes an escape (and makes his entrance) by stowing away in a coffin being cast into the sea, invoking the Perseus myth. (Soon after his birth, Perseus and his mother were sealed in a chest and cast into the sea.)
Side note about seafaring myths in Dead Man’s Chest: Indeed, a glance at Davy Jones’ Wikipedia entry confirms that Jones presided over evil spirits of the deep. Inspired move: the filmmakers made Jones the captain of another nautical legend, the spectral Flying Dutchman, which can only go ashore every few years. As much as I enjoyed the goofy mythology invented for part one, I like how they cherry-pick and combine actual legends for part two.
The filmmakers seal the Greek deal at the end, by having Sparrow die at the Kraken’s hands (well, tentacles), and by the third act of this overlong movie, they finally rediscover what made part one such a pleasant surprise: interesting choices being made by vividly drawn characters. It’s interesting that Will Turner casts his lot with a pirate at the end of part one, and it’s interesting that Elizabeth Swan starts to fall seriously in love with Sparrow, only to shackle him to the mainmast of his ship so she can escape with Will and so the Kraken can devour Sparrow and his ship. It’s a fun spin on the Greek myth, with a woman shackling a man to be a sacrifice to a mythological leviathan, and it connects dramatically.
Unfortunately, though, all of this only add up to a truly successful third act. Depp’s out of it for the whole first act. Nothing happens in the second. And only the price of the ticket kept me around for the third – though they do set up part three very well, what with Geoffrey Rush’s memorable pirate captain reappearing to lead them to the ends of the earth to rescue Sparrow. I can only hope, though, that Verbinski keeps Depp’s performance focused and that the writers continue to mine more classic myths. A more enthusiastic hand in the editing bay wouldn’t hurt, either. Two and a half hours should be a ceiling for big summer movies, not a target.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.