Everybody loves it when a sequel reunites the original cast. From The Empire Strikes Back through to X-Men 2, the reinvigoration of winning team dynamics has ensured follow-ups that, at the very least, match their predecessors. But here’s a possibly controversial, certainly upsetting, proposition: Pirates 2, aka Dead Man’s Chest, would have benefited by jettisoning much of the original cast, and following Captain Jack into different waters.
It’s not so much that putting Johnny, Keira and Orlando back together is inherently a mistake. It’s rather that the plot contortions required to get them – along with Jack Davenport’s Norrington and Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg’s comic-relief cut-throats – in the same frame leaves Dead Man’s Chest convoluted and stumbling, zigzagging its way forward over a too-long runtime. Sure, such a dazed swagger is neatly consistent with its lead character’s now trademark, drunken-sailor gait, but a more direct route would have been far, far better.
Why, for example, bother writing Crook and Arenberg back into the story? Couldn’t writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio have found a fresh source of buffoonery? Norrington, meanwhile, is given a whole diversion-creating sub-story that is wholly unnecessary. And as for the main plot, the exposition is forever muffled. This is partly due to the fact that in some scenes you’re straining to hear what people are saying because Zimmer’s busy score is so high in the mix. But with director Gore Verbinski rushing so much to get everything rolling and everyone together, he often leaves us behind to play catch up with our brains and figure out what the hell is going on.
There is fortunately a good side to all these plot complications and confusions: with pretty much every main character following their own agenda (surrounding the contents of the titular container, which is linked to Nighy’s Davy Jones) we don’t get the predictable ‘all friends together on the same quest’ structure, and there’s a surfeit of surprises, crosses and double-crosses and cheeky character beats which stay true to the original’s anti-heroic sense of fun. After all, Jack Sparrow //is// a pirate, a bad guy in a hero’s hat, a man driven by self-gain over concern for the greater good, who will run away from a fight and cheat his ‘friends’ without a second’s thought.
Even without the surprise value, Depp is once again an unmitigated joy as Captain Sparrow, delivering another eye-darting, word-slurring turn with some wonderful slapstick flourishes. Indeed, Rossio and Elliot smartly exploit these in some wonderful action set-pieces, the best seeing Jack attempting to escape from a cannibal village while tied to a pole that’s also skewering a selection of exotic fruits, and hurtling down a chasm Wile E. Coyote style.
Such inventiveness is also apparent once we’re on board Davy Jones’ slimy, barnacle-smothered ship The Flying Dutchman. While some of his bizarre, aquatic crewmembers suffer from obvious-CG-itis, Jones himself is a flawless creation, all dripping tentacles and twitching mannerisms, complemented effectively by Bill Nighy’s harsh Hibernian whisper.
Yet as a //character// he’s no match for Geoffrey Rush’s Barbarossa, proving a far less textured – and fun – bad guy. And that’s an important word: fun. It’s what made the first movie fly, and what this instalment lacks. Much has already been made of a similarity to The Empire Strikes Back – hardly an original move for a Part Two – and the gloomier, more serious undertones, from the devlopment of a love triangle to the downbeat climax, are not a terribly comfortable fit. Still, things may lighten up for the final chapter; here’s hoping that these pirates’ Roger becomes Jolly once more…