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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Director: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Stellan Skarsgård

(Walt Disney Pictures; US theatrical: 7 Jul 2006 (General release); 2006)

Crafty

Just a couple of months ago, I rewatched the first Pirates of the Caribbean, on a teeny airplane screen, without sound. I was surprised at how well it held up under such conditions, and was reminded of why everyone loves Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. Even without benefit of his slurry exclamations, he’s a jaunty, mascaraed delight, strange and mesmerizing, a throwback to ingenious silent film comedians.


Jack looks pretty much the same in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. He’s still got the beat-down pirate’s cap, the gaudy jewelries, and the fabulous makeup (here escalated considerably when he plays god for an island tribe by painting two cascades of eyeballs down his cheeks). And he’s still enjoying the bizarre luck of the screwball rapscallion, such that any fall from a cliff or plunge off a ship’s deck lands him in exactly the right position so that he’s not killed outright, but instead launched into a Rube-Goldbergian series of spills and splats. Demented and punctuated by Depp’s scowls and “oofs,” these bits are mostly amusing and sometimes even surprising. 


If only this were the case for the movie around him. Dead Man’s Chest, however, feels less like a new adventure than more of the same, bigger, longer, more rambunctious and generally less fun than the first time you saw it.


The story this time has Jack on the loose with his scurvy crew on the Black Pearl, while his erstwhile companions—lovely Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) and wan Will Turner (Orlando Bloom)—imprisoned. Hoping to use the young lovers in order to get hold of Jack, the requisite corporate villain, an East India Trading Company representative named Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), sends Will off to recover Jack’s magical compass (it points the way to what you most desire, which tends to indict the bearer more than reveal treasure or, say, true love), in exchange for his fiancée’s freedom (not to mention their wedding, brutally interrupted by British forces at the sequel’s opening).


Though noble Will resents Jack’s foppy selfishness as much as the rest of us tend to relish it, the younger man’s efforts to rescue his beloved are complicated by the fact that his fate intersects pretty directly with Jack’s, via the titular chest. This belongs to Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), the notorious, cranky, and long-dead pirate who continues to make trouble from undersea, somewhat hampered by a list of rules about when he can and can’t appear, and whoever is cursed to sail with him for whatever number of years. As he’s been underwater for some time, Jones is more monstrous than the average pirate or even pirate’s ghost, with a head and arms turned all squiddy and tentacly (achieved by motion-capturing and spectacular animating).


Jones has access to a gigantic sea monster called the Kraken, resembling a suction-cupped squid and apparently voracious, killing whatever ship Jones desires. Even better, at least for the sake of visual wonderment, Jones’ crew aboard the Flying Dutchman has also adapted, such that each is fishy in his own way, whether reshaped by shells, scales, or gills. Of these the most talkative is one Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), who happens to be Will’s father, whose long-ago selling of his soul to Jones has made the son rather hateful towards pirates (this explains some of his antipathy toward Jack). When Will, via his pursuit of Jack, ends up in Jones’ clutches, he rediscovers the father he barely knew and decides to save him, if only to prove that he is not like Jack and does not abandon those who are supposed to be close to him. Even if they’re not.


This father-son business takes up a good deal of Will’s energy, though Jack is, as you might guess, uninterested in this bit of melodrama except as it affects his own interests. These have to do with his own years-ago deal with Jones, whereby he gained captainship of the Black Pearl: now, even though he hasn’t technically been captain for the agreed-upon term, owing to that troublesome mutiny that initiated the first film, the payment is coming due, and Jack is understandably reluctant to give it up, seeing as it’s his soul.


This raises some (not necessarily interesting) questions as to the value or existence of a pirate’s soul, but leave it to Elizabeth (who unsurprisingly makes her way out of prison to join in the shenanigans) to declare that, after all, Jack is a “good man.” This makes for some “sexual” tension between the two of tem (as Elizabeth would never ever be the slightest bit enticed by a man who wasn’t “good”), as well as some vague gestures toward self-reflection by Jack, but for the most part, the original trio remains fixed on their courses.


That said, Elizabeth’s storybooky affection for Will does hit a couple of snags. She takes particular pause when, during the height of the group’s search for the likely life-saving chest, she espies her supposed associates—namely, Will, Jack, and her former beau Norrington (Jack Davenport)—behaving badly. “Pirates!” she roars, lamenting their perpetual adolescence even as she appreciates that they’re not so stuffy as the now nearly gnarly Norrington once was and wanted her to be.


She appears here in a pirate’s gear, having snuck on board a ship disguised as such a man. In so sneaking, she leaves her dress on board for the male pirates to find, first eliciting their titillation and then their dread, for the only reason a pretty dress might appear within the men’s domain is because it’s been left by a ghost. Within minutes, Elizabeth is doing exactly that, stringing up the garment on ropes so that it appears to float before the mostly drunken pirates in the dead of night, scaring them into missing the fact that she’s on board, and giving her the chance to scout the information she seeks.

Eventually landing herself in the way of Jack and Will, who have been proceeding with their boyish exploits apace, Elizabeth does more or less hold her own in swashbuckling encounters, she remains the girl, or here, actually the white girl. For Dead Man’s Chest introduces yet a second member of the fairer sex, this one ready-made for haunting and troubling, Jack’s more or less stereotypically hoodoo friend Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris, chewing up her scenes with thick “island” accent). Flashing her blackened teeth and carrying bones and talismans, the swamp-dwelling Tia Dalma knows secrets the men can’t fathom, and only gives them up in fragments.


Tia Dalma might inspire dread in the pirates on her first appearance. But by their second time—after they’ve met the Flying Dutchman beasties—she seems familiar, even if she is a girl and a black one at that (you’ll recall that Jack’s first movie crew included Zoe Saldana, however briefly). And so Pirates’ sex-and-gendering maintains a certain fluidity, partly by Elizabeth’s tomboyishness and mostly by Jack’s flamboyance. For all his hetero swaggering, Jack makes clear the shiftiness allowed by powdered-wigs-and-tights back in the day. Endlessly crafty, Jack’s fondness for wrist bangles and hair doodads makes him infinitely more interesting than the action franchise in which he’s packaged.


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest - Trailer


Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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