The fact 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was such a hit had much to do with viewers' pre-launch expectations, which were approximately none. Who could have been blamed for thinking a Gore Verbinski-directed, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movie based on a theme-park ride would proffer anything remotely approaching the (pardon) thrill ride it turned out to be? The credentials were not promising: the director of The Mexican and Mouse Hunt, writers of the animated unhappy meals Treasure Planet and The Road to El Dorado, and producer of Con Air and Armageddon. Alas, $305 mil in the U.S. alone proved the doubters wrong. Hence, not one but two sequels were filmed at the same time. Now if only someone had gotten around to writing them.
Whatever goodwill one harbored toward the first Pirates film is quickly dashed by its sneering successor, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, which is less a film than a two-and-a-half-hour trailer for the final installment in this accidental trilogy. The second offering even has the choppy, sloppy rhythms of a teaser, drawn out to interminably turgid lengths. This is a movie that manages to contain half a dozen endings and still no ending at all; the final scene has all the payoff of a give-up, despite the appearance of an actor meant to juice up the proceedings just as you're ready to beat a retreat. Such is the inertia brought on by an hour's worth of padding meant to flesh out a double feature that could have been a short.
The entire original crew returns, both in front of the camera and behind. The sole new face of any consequence is Bill Nighy (Love Actually's washed-up rocker Billy Mack), and it's obscured beneath pounds of prosthetics that make him look like a side of calamari at a family-style restaurant. He's Davy Jones not the Monkee (though that would have been more interesting), but the mythic beastie of seafaring legend who's said to collect and control those damned to the depths of the deepest blue. Among his cursed crew is Stellan Skarsgård as "Bootstrap" Bill Turner, the father of young blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), loathed the first time around for abandoning him as a young lad. As the second movie has slightly weightier motives than its predecessor, sooner or later we'll come to find that one can either choose "the dark side of ambition or the promise of redemption," and that both are separated by a very fine line.
Turns out Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, still offering his impression of Tattoo You-era Keith Richards) needs to square his debt to Davy Jones and can do so only by fetching his still-beating heart locked away in a chest on some remote island. And one way or another, all the old pals return to join in the quest: Will (Bloom, still valiantly and vainly trying to prove himself a movie star), his fiancée Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley, given little to do but scream and fall down), Commodore James Norrington (Jack Davenport, now a bitter, broken-down rum pot), and sordid sidekicks Pintel (Lee Arenberg) and Ragetti (MacKenzie Crook).
But the movie's not merely as simple as a pirate searching for the thing that will set him free (again). The story's so needlessly convoluted as to render it all but incomprehensible. Why, for instance, would Captain Jack vehemently oppose Will's plan to stab Davy Jones' recovered heart, when doing so would kill the demon and set him free? Jack's refusal to do so is but a mere cynical machination, setting up the third and wholly unnecessary third film. (Imagine if Luke could have killed the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back, but instead decided, "Nah, maybe next time.")
The only pleasures to be taken from Dead Man's Chest are a couple of nifty action sequences that take place entirely on land one concerning Jack and his crew's escape from the requisite dark-skinned (though really just deeply tanned) savages who want to kill and eat them, the other involving a three-man sword fight (you, stop snickering) on a giant waterwheel as it rolls down a never-ending hillside. They're so clever and dazzling and imaginative, you can't shake the feeling the filmmakers spent so much time mapping them out that they were spent by the time it got around to things like storytelling and character development, perhaps figuring the first movie took care of all those now-unnecessary bits of business. If nothing else, Dead Man's Chest serves its heartless purpose: It makes no sense if you haven't seen the first movie and is utterly pointless without the third installment that ostensibly wraps up this mess. Maybe it was made by pirates too.