When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl sailed into the harbor during the summer of 2003, it was as if none of us had ever seen a pirate movie before. We were delighted, dazzled. Surprisingly buoyant, thanks in part to Johnny Depp's light-in-his-loafers turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, the movie didn't begin to take itself seriously, treating the old familiar tropes Ã?' parrots, buried treasure, walking the plank Ã?' like old familiar friends, ripe for teasing and good for a laugh no matter how many times we'd heard the joke before. Director Gore Verbinski managed to keep the movie on course, and Depp gave it an anything-goes edge, sashaying from one side of the screen to the other, delivering his lines sotto voce, as if he didn't expect anybody else to understand them. Making off with $650 million in gold bullion, The Curse of the Black Pearl dispelled The Curse of the Pirate Movie, perhaps forever.
You're not familiar with The Curse of the Pirate Movie? Well, maybe you didn't see Cutthroat Island, then. Or Roman Polanski's Pirates. Worse, maybe you did. The former sank the company that produced it. And between the two of them, it didn't look like swashbucklers would ever find their sea legs again. But here's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, following in The Curse of the Black Pearl's wake, with another installment, the third in a projected trilogy, already heading our way. And like most sequels, this one's bigger, louder and determined to entertain us, whether we like it or not. There are some decent bits amid all the hullabaloo, as when Jack shoots his way out of a water-borne coffin, using the original occupant's skeletal remains to row ashore. But what passed for inspiration the last time is largely missing this time, leaving only perspiration.
Perspiration and digitalization. To replace the ghost pirates that brought a kooky-spooky element to Black Pearl, scriptwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have conjured up a crew of Red Lobster rejects under the command of the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), who himself has an octopus where his head's supposed to be and a lobster claw for a hand. The effect is certainly special, which is why we call them special effects. And Nighy somehow manages to give an actual performance under all those writhing tentacles. But Verbinski overplays the aquaman card, bringing forth his critters early and often, including in broad daylight, where their skin turns rubbery. Then there's the Kraken, a gigantic CGI-to-the-max cephalopod capable of wrapping its arms around an entire ship, squeezing the life out of it. The third time it does so, you may find yourself checking your watch.
Or not. For these sequences basically deliver the goods, supplying heft to what is in fact nothing more than a few gigabytes of computer memory. Where the movie comes up short is in the smaller, quieter moments, in which the cast is asked to rely on things like dialogue and, you know, acting. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley return as one of the more boring couples in the long history of high-seas romance, and the script certainly puts them through their paces, sending them all over the Caribbean in search of a compass, a key, a chest and Ã?' because they're often separated Ã?' each other. But Bloom, with that pencil-thin mustache, still looks like Errol Flynn without the devilish gleam in his eye. And Knightley, though as beautiful as they come, still has to disguise her feminine charms to get by. Not unlike a pirate ship, the movie seems to have no place for a woman, no matter how skilled with a sword.
Speaking of which, the swordfights are perfunctory at best, even the one set on a water wheel that's rolling down a hill toward the ocean. The last time out, Jack Sparrow's swordsmanship was a clue to his character Ã?' inept, but deadly. This time, he lets his mouth do the talking, and that's too bad, because Elliott and Rossio haven't given him very much to say. Depp's performance came out of left field in The Curse of the Black Pearl; nobody had ever thought of channeling Keith Richards and PepÃ? Le Pew before. And with that Buster Keaton entrance, disembarking from a sinking dinghy onto a pier without missing a step, he had us at 'ello. But this performance seems pitched from center field, lobbed over the plate. It's surprisingly unsurprising. And the character isn't any richer or deeper, just less funny, less weird. Obviously, it worked better as comic relief than as romantic lead.
That's right, Jack has a little moment with Knightley's Elizabeth, who may have more pirate blood in her than we thought. But the movie's way too busy imitating the theme-park ride it's based on to pursue such heretical notions. Barroom brawls, escapes from cannibals, a sea monster that might as well have "Vagina Dentata" scribbled on its forehead (if it had a forehead) Ã?' the movie throws so much at us that it's difficult to imagine what's left for Episode Three to do, although it'll be here before you can say "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum." Like any self-respecting pirate movie, Dead Man's Chest keeps stealing from other pirate movies Ã?' revered classics like Captain Blood, The Crimson Pirate and The Curse of the Black Pearl. But with another whole round of plundering to go, you wonder whether the filmmakers haven't run out of buried treasure. Curse of the Pirate Movie? No, just a nasty case of sequelitis.