Friday, June 10, 2011
It isn’t simply that I like Dead Man’s Chest better than Curse of the Black Pearl, that my sui generis brain chemistry arbitrarily prefers squid-pirates to skeletal specters and sexy rogues to straight-laced do-gooders, thought that’s certainly true. But, despite a few extra pounds that should have been a warning sign, Dead Man’s Chest is also the stronger film, a classical, swashbuckling tragedy across the Disney fantasyland where wood looks plasticky and water chlorinated. Curse of the Black Pearl is a terrific children’s entertainment, the best film adaptation of you and your friends playing pirate that ever existed, but Dead Man’s Chest boasts fewer “Try wearing a corset” clunkers, more boundary-pushing action thrills, and CGI that would make James Cameron drool if he were biologically human.
We should have known by 2006 what a dextrous director Gore Verbinski is, sidestepping the trenches that sink so many sequels: he’s happy with just one villain—and no wonder, as Bill Nighy’s depressive Davy Jones reveals how flat Ian McShane’s Blackbeard would be in Episode IV: A New Film—he expands the universe without overextending—in fact, the film’s major movements isolate the six or eight main characters in sharp opposition to the Peter Jackson formula—Orlando Bloom is exactly as sleepy as he was in the original, and best of all, Verbinski keeps things light no matter how dark the subject matter. And rest assured, where its predecessor saw landlubbers Will and Elizabeth dipping a toe in the moral gray, Dead Man’s Chest is positively Machiavellian. No wonder, considering it’s a Dungeons/Dragons, Tolkienesque game of actors chasing relics across a map played out by Ahab obsessives with nothing to lose. Our heroes are wanted by the British government and confused about the bonds between them, Norrington’s a drunken mercenary, Bootstrap Bill is condemned to eternal slavery, and Davy Jones is a man enduring the hell of outliving his beloved. The stakes aren’t mere profit and plunder, a slice of a hand, a temporary marooning. They’re life and death, and it feels like it, as when the Kraken retreats for a moment and the survivors wander in a haze around the ship turned graveyard. What comes next is even more chilling, as Elizabeth chases The Prince way past the point of no return—with a half-hearted Spockian “needs of the many” rationalization—and Verbinski slows to a crawl to force us to confront the consequences.
Of course, none of this classical tragedy stuffing would have a whit of resonance if Dead Man’s Chest didn’t hold up as a summer action blockbuster inspired by adventure pulp for kids. Though we spend way too long getting the band back together, the first act (featuring Jack’s escape from natives and Elizabeth’s Twelfth Night phase) is fairly inextricable from the meat in ways that Captain Jack’s London adventures that open On Stranger Tides are not, and at least Dead Man’s Chest knows how to end once the action’s over. The climax is awesomely silly and surprisingly coherent, with Jack, Will, and Norrington swordfighting on a giant hamster wheel rolling across a gorgeous jungle as Elizabeth, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern hold off the sea creature-pirates with one sword between them. Speaking of Davy Jones’ army, where the original cops out by only revealing its magic under moonlight, not that we don’t notice some pixely moments anyway, Dead Man’s Chest climaxes in full sunlight on the Island of Dr. Moreau, and the oceanic monsters mostly live up to the promise of Davy Jones’ hypnotic tentacles. The Kraken even looks passable, and Verbinski breaks out the bullet-time to illustrate how close the franchise was to being devoured by the Caribbean Sarlacc pit. Thank Johnny Depp’s Agent, it survived.