If you like tentacles, you'll love Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. There's a monstrously mammoth sea serpent whose huge, fatty tentacles can attack and capsize galleons at will, and they do so repeatedly during the course of the film. And then there's the villainous Davy Jones, captain of the ghostly Flying Dutchman, who in his eternal afterlife has become a kind of barnacle-encrusted half-squid/half-man with slithering, creepy-crawly tentacles for a beard. (He's a special-effects marvel, played -- somehow -- by the great character actor Bill Nighy.)
It probably seems like this is an odd thing for me to focus on in a review of the film. After all, it does star such heartthrobs as Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley and is the sequel to the enormously popular Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl from 2003.
But after the fourth or fifth attack by that sea serpent, which progressively moves from being a spectacularly effective thrill to a cheesy, sticky-fluid-spewing sight gag by the film's end, I couldn't remember much else about Dead Man's Chest. The redundancy wore me out -- and even Davy became tiresome. (Considering what the sea serpent does to Depp, and that Depp's pirate Captain Jack Sparrow is modeled on Rolling Stone Keith Richards, I might just say the whole monster subplot is a sly tribute to Sticky Fingers.
Overkill, in a word, is Pirates' problem. It falls prey to what afflicted the middle section of Peter Jackson's King Kong -- too much of what the filmmakers think is a good thing. Returning director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio take their mandate to provide an adrenaline-pumping adventure film much too seriously. And in order to keep outdoing themselves with cathartic, fast-paced set pieces, they allow each one to lose its individual meaning. For instance, why do Bloom and another actor roll around while sword-fighting inside a giant wooden wheel on a beach? Visually, it's cool -- for awhile -- but it leads to nothing. If this film were a Disney ride -- and it is -- it would have to be shut down for mechanical exhaustion. And Hans Zimmer's always-soaring score could use an intermission or two.
Still, Pirates does find Depp in fine, idiosyncratic form. Once again, he puts the "high" in a high-seas swashbuckling adventure. With a quizzical stare, a deeply resonant voice -- with a slightly mannered British accent -- that keeps trailing off into confused muttering, and an awkward way of walking forced into an unfamiliar pair of high heels, his Jack Sparrow is a deeply stoned dude. (The film attributes this to a fondness for rum.)
And he's got the colorful threads, braided hair, deep eye shadow, headscarves and gold teeth of a guy who sells dope outside a Dead concert. At one point, his face is painted with extra sets of eyes so he looks like a Hindu deity. Depp is funny yet not so bizarrely outside the world of the rest of the movie that his performance is a contrivance. And it's fun to hear him mellifluously say words like "Beastie" and "Sorry, mate!" The language in Dead Man's Chest frequently is quite lively and downright literate -- a summer-movie rarity.
The plot involves a British East India company officer wanting Jack to get him the key to the Dead Man's Chest so he can rule the waves. To apply pressure, the British arrest Will Turner (Bloom) and fiancé Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) and threaten them with death unless Will works with Jack.
But the key is in the control of Davy Jones and his rowdy crew of supernatural freaks and geeks. And they have their own bones to pick with both Jack and, eventually, Will. For instance, one of Jones' sailors, his face a mass of putrid carbuncles, happens to be Will's dad (an excellent Stellan Skarsgard).
The marvelous special-effects and makeup teams deserve credit for making Jones' locker room of bizarros so visually affecting and, well, fishy. There's a guy with a hammerhead and another whose head rolls up into a snail's shell. But what exactly are the rules of engagement to their confrontations with the film's human contingent? The movie is never clear on that point and so the excitement dissipates as the confrontations accumulate.
The film also relies too much on the eternally bland Bloom as a clean-cut, heroic alternative to Depp. There's no depth to his acting, nothing memorable. And Knightley, fresh off an Oscar nomination for Pride and Prejudice, plays Elizabeth with a modernist, feminist determination completely at odds with everyone else in the film.
On a side point, is cannibalism back in fashion? I thought adventure movies long ago had ditched it as part of their stock-in-trade due to its crass nature. Yet Dead Man's Chest features an elaborate set piece in which Jack and his crew end up on an island inhabited by cannibals.
The particulars of that scene are well-directed by Verbinski and shot by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, confidently shifting from a light comic tone to one of breathtaking wonderment as Jack's crew runs from the natives and climbs up or falls down a deep chasm. Further, Depp does make for an attractive giant shish kabob, which he becomes at one point. But the whole thing is in questionable taste -- and ultimately pointless.
Dead Man's Chest ends inconclusively because there's already a Pirates 3 in the works. Next time around the filmmakers should relax, have some of whatever Depp appears to be imbibing, and make a movie far more amiably goofy and less relentless than this. Grade: C+