It all begins with an ill-fated crow.
A ship solemnly drops coffins overboard, waiting for the sea to reclaim its own. Bobbing on water a while before they sink, the coffins are a macabre sight. Alighting on one, the black bird curiously hammers its beak repeatedly, a woodpecker-like rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. And then, rat-a-boom, it suddenly explodes in a flurry of feathers and gunpowder.
An arm peeks out of a hole in the coffin, periscoping around with a pistol in case of sudden danger. The wood makes way for a disheveled Johnny Depp. As he breaks off a skeletal leg from his deceased coffin-mate (thankfully off-screen) a rush of gleeful thrill runs through the audience: Captain Jack Sparrow is back.
As is the rest of the gang. Except, for now, they're in considerably deeper water than our flamboyant kajal-wearer. Elizabeth Swain (Keira Knightley) has been tossed unceremoniously into a dungeon, with bland fiancé Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) sent out to fetch Jack's compass and bring it back to the British Navy, to help the East India Company restore control over the high seas.
Meanwhile, on the aforementioned high seas, Captain Jack has resumed command of his dark vessel, The Black Pearl. All seems well with the world, until he runs into Will Turner's dead father. To his credit, Jack regains composure almost immediately, swaying as he asks, 'To what do I owe the pleasure of your carbuncle?' If Jack's reaction seems rude, consider that the cadaverous 'Bootstrap' Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) is virtually falling apart, barnacles sprouting on his face, crunching beetles for nourishment. This, we soon gather, is the fallout of having made a deal with the devil.
Not quite a man of wealth and taste, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) is the sea. While we've always fabricated Davy Jones' Locker as a euphemism for where dead sailors go to rest, just like, say, that big kennel in the sky, Jones enjoys a far more corporeal existence in the Pirates universe: A man-octopus who gives dead sailors a 100 year lease of life in eventual exchange for their souls. Bootstrap, one of his unwilling crewmembers, comes to tell Sparrow his time is up. We learn that Jack, in exchange for captaining the Black Pearl for 13 years, had promised his soul to Davy Jones. As the filthy black 'spot' on Sparrow's palm indicates, his time is now up. Oo-er.
Appropriate for a franchise built out of a Disney theme park ride, Dead Man's Chest is a hugely packed effects-driven spectacle, an epic adventure built around precious little story. For that reason, critics are hailing the unbelievably successful Pirates franchise as this generation's Star Wars: a bunch of exaggerated characters in a vaguely familiar (fictionally speaking) era gradually developing their own muddled mythology, complete with subcultures, finding its way as it goes along. Where it differs from the space series is that while George Lucas' productions had immensely memorable characters (Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2D2 and C3PO, all dwarved by Darth Vader), Pirates has just Jack.
Still, what a character to have. Jack Sparrow is the first insanely great Hollywood icon to emerge this century, and he wears the cloak of immortality with fabulous panache. Depp breathes the character, taking care to hide his swoon-inducing (women in the theatre literally squeal with delight) looks behind the unsavoury Sparrow facade. Not a pin-up boy but a pirate and, as we're learning with this series, that is a supremely opportunistic tribe. Sparrow is cowardly, deceitful, unashamed and, despite what Elizabeth says, he doesn't believe in any redeeming virtues. He's a magnificent, utterly original character, and descriptive words honestly cannot do him justice. He's an irresistible rogue and needs to be experienced, as Elizabeth learns when he criticises her fashion sense: "You know, these clothes do not flatter you at all. It should be a dress or nothing. I happen to have no dress in my cabin."
Even when Jack isn't on screen, he is unfailingly the subject of the scene. But talking about the inimitable Sparrow isn't the same as watching him, so the film often drags as a result. It is a two and a half-hour movie, a mammoth film by any standard, and the cheesy, insubstantial plot is riddled with holes. Obviously a film like Dead Man's Chest isn't taking itself seriously, which makes the madcap action and even the near-constant predictability more tolerable, but even taken with all the cheery indulgence of a hardcore fan, this movie wears thin. Without mincing words, it's a stupid, silly film that's decidedly too long for its own good -- but, thanks to Jack and the spectacle, ends up pretty darned big-screen watchable.
One of the basic problems is with Orlando Bloom. While Keira manages to relatively hold the fort when she is required to overact (all principal actors are called on to ham like hell; the supporting cast is terrifically restrained), and even stretches out a couple of rather tantalising scenes with Depp, Bloom is scenery. The film needs a noble, 'nice guy' hero, and Orlando's stoic and vanilla demeanour fits in, but the character is an insufferable pain, emerging the least likeable of the movie. With his eye-candy status relegated to the back of the grid, thanks to Jack's effeminate swagger, Bloom's just pulling down the film. His role here is ballast.
Bill Nighy is fantastic, a wet devil who plays a pipe organ with his beard of tentacles. His Davy Jones provokes both shudders and laughs, particularly because, despite all the make-up and effects, he is unmistakably Nighy. Naomie Harris plays the bewitching Tia Dalma, a wonderfully spirited character (a cross between The Matrix's Oracle and a hot gift-shop girl), who thankfully promises to have an integral role in Pirates 3. Jack Davenport's Commodore (sorry, ex-Commodore) Norrington now has a rather ballsy character, and Kevin McNally does well as Jack's first mate, Mr Gibbs.
Outside of the acting, there's a lot of screaming, very roller-coaster ride stuff as Sparrow almost ends up as fruit-salad for cannibals and Will duels Norrington atop a gigantic wheel with Sparrow trying to keep up a hamster act within. The action is crazy and outlandish, but extremely elaborate, the kind you're likely to see in cartoons like The Road Runner and Tom & Jerry. It's fast-paced, but often goes on far longer than acceptable in a live-action film. There are some awesome moments, but -- just like the occasionally clever dialogues you keep straining to catch -- it's packed too tightly together, so you constantly feel like you've missed something.
The film sets up Pirates 3 in a big way, the climax killing off a principal character and resurrecting another. Dead Man's Chest is an elaborately absurd joke and you're likely to have a good time if you don't overanalyse it. It could have been a drab film that fell flat but, thanks to Captain Jack Sparrow, it's a gas.