When Johnny Depp's kohl-eyed Jack Sparrow sashayed across the screen in the first "Pirates of the Caribbean," the impact was instantaneous. The last thing one expected in a big summer extravaganza was a star turn that pulled the rug out from under you. His hilariously fey, tipsy pirate made every scene a leap into the comic unknown: you had the feeling that Depp was getting away with something. It felt liberating, and turned what was otherwise a solid but routine period adventure movie into a larkish blockbuster.
Any movie that grosses $653 million worldwide demands a sequel, whether the material warrants it or not. But "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" starts with a disadvantage: there's no way it can recapture that subversive thrill of surprise. Now we expect the unexpected from Depp. The producer, Jerry Bruckheimer; the director, Gore Verbinski, and the screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, deal with this dilemma in a typical Hollywood way. They've made everything in the sequel a little bigger, louder and more expensive. They've upped the archness ante, and poured on the special effects, introducing a kraken, a mythological many-tentacled slimy sea beast that periodically rises from the deep to lay waste to ships at sea. They've given the ghostly Captain Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) a grotesque squidlike face with squirmy tentacles of its own where a beard might be, while the rest of his undead crew feature heads that range from hammerhead sharks to spiky blowfish. And the new film plants its enlarged tongue even deeper into its swollen cheek, encouraging everyone to follow Depp's antic lead.
The result is an overproduced movie that tries so strenuously hard to be "fun" that it's a chore to sit through. For all its razzle-dazzle production values, the story itself feels cluttered, hard to follow and hard to care about. You may come away thinking its all just a setup for "Pirates" 3. Elisabeth (Keira Knightley) and Will (Orlando Bloom) are arrested on their wedding day for helping Jack Sparrow escape the clutches of the law. Now they face a death sentence unless Will can find Jack and wrest his magical compass from him. The compass will somehow lead to the legendary dead man's chest of Davy Jones, whose contents will determine who rules the seas: a power the despicable Lord Beckett of the East India Company desperately desires. Sparrow faces deadly perils of his own: he's made his devil's bargain with Davy Jones and the bill—his soul—has come due. Of more pressing concern is the tribe of cannibals who have made him their god (a tribe that seems to have wandered in off the set of Peter Jackson's "King Kong") and plan to honor him by roasting him on a spit and serving him for dinner. Many chases, betrayals, swordfights, battles with dragons and Rube Goldberg-like comic cliffhangers ensue, all propelled by Hans Zimmer's oppressively rousing score. The real sense of urgency on display, however, is the studio's desire for a hit.
Depp is still an endearing scamp. He gives a cunning, sometimes delicious performance, but now we can see the curveballs coming. In the first film, the fun was watching Depp steal the movie: now it's handed to him on a platter. You can't be a felon when the movie's fawning on you. He's a master of the throwaway line, but the lines aren't quite as witty the second time around, and the jokes are hit and miss. The sly Nighy (the hilarious aging rock star in "Love, Actually") is a good match for him, except it seems a bit of a waste of such a crafty actor that we never get to see his real face.
Verbinski is skilled. He pulls off some nice slapstick with a decapitated ghost pirate trying to locate his still talking sea-urchin's head, which is funny in a kind of Richard Lester absurdist way. But he feels compelled, as so many filmmakers do in the anything-goes age of CGI, to reach for spectacular set pieces: watching a swordfight staged on a rolling water wheel as it slides down a hill makes you marvel at the logistical difficulty of the stunt, but it doesn't make you laugh. And its impact is diminished because we've already sat through a similar stunt in this movie with a globe-shaped jail-pen rolling comically down yet another hill. The filmmakers seem to believe that every boffo moment has to have its own sequel within the movie. Why have one climax, when you can have six? "Pirates 2" is altogether too much of a once-good thing.