In 2003 along came a Summer movie whose performance surprised everyone - the first "Pirates of the Caribbean". An adaptation of a Disney ride, expectations weren't particularly high for the film and pirate movies in general were always considered arguably the most problematic genre in Hollywood. Yet upon release it turned into the second biggest film of that year - as Summer movies go it was excellent, word of mouth was very positive and by year's end it was a mega hit all over the world. So now comes the inevitable sequel and the big question is - is it as good as the first?
The answer for the most part, yeah. The original "Pirates" was generally a solid Summer movie, but was elevated into greatness mostly due to the inspired lead performance of its star - Johnny Depp. Depp's comedic take on his character of Capt. Jack Sparrow has become a modern classic in cinema and is always cited by many as the first movie's greatest strength. In what was essentially a straight forward swashbuckler, Depp was a loose canon who had been let out to play with the children. His off-beat character moments helped overcome the weak story about cursed Aztec gold, but couldn't entirely shake off the all too long runtime which caused the pacing to flail, especially in the last half-hour.
This time around though 'Pirates' stands stronger - the story and mystery elements are more interesting, the locations richer and more varied, the digital effects have improved from solid to often jaw-dropping, and whilst it retains some pacing issues, this time around it's the first half as such that proves a little bit choppy whilst the second half is pretty much faultless. Not just production value wise but in some of the major departmental areas as well such as writing, acting and directing - its all as good if not better in some ways than the first overall.
Yet there's something just a tad off here which will prevent it from being embraced as much as the first one - most likely that somewhat problematic first act. The first 45 minutes of the movie has to deal with the consequences of the first film - in part it handles it quite successfully such as the introduction of the pompous and slimy Lord Cutler (Tom Hollander deliciously chewing the scenery) quickly taking charge and forcing Will Turner to go find Jack. In other ways though the script fumbles a little trying to set up things - with the three heroes split up, each is stuck with their own storylines and the quality of the three vary greatly. Also, we're thrust right into the action with no real preparation so it takes a while to find your footing again - time the film doesn't grant us.
Of the three subplots the real shock is that Orlando Bloom manages to nab the best in his pursuit of Jack and then subsequent meeting with his father and Davy Jones' crew. Bloom is still Bloom - impressive more in terms of looks than ability, yet the boy has improved from the first and is quite serviceable in the straight man role of Will Turner again. Knightley has more visibly grown skill wise (and is much more assertive this time around) but at first she must plow through a somewhat disappointing story about imprisonment and escape. Once she's able to join the main swath of action, she holds her own against even the likes of Depp.
The biggest Achilles heel of the film though is that poor Depp is stuck with all too few laughs in the early part. With no-one to really play off, short of a fun (albeit ultimately pointless) sidetrip to a cannibal village, he's a little too serious and seems to be missing that magic spark. He's still a good character, but not the one we fell in love with. An hour in though the film sails into clear waters - Depp and Knightley meet up and the banter from Depp from this point on is as good as ever, even if that more 'off the cuff' aspect is the tinniest bit dimmed. The action keeps increasing in size and fun, the pacing picks up and by the third act never lets down, and there's some clever twists and character double crosses that are surprising, shocking and cheer worthy - including one very cool cameo.
Verbinski continues to impress as a filmmaker, bringing a workman like approach to film fantasy which treats the fantastical with the same approach as the everyday. His production staff have lavished everything in great detail - the costumes are richly constructed, the sets and boats certainly feel like sailing ships that have been in service for years, and the locations ranging from the pirate towns to the lush jungles are lavish and always convincing (he even manages to thrown in a few more nods to the ride). Despite this being a more serious affair than the last film, he never forgets to take the time to enjoy the comedy of its situations, but with natural laughs that flow with the narrative rather than the self-aware deconstructive humour the cheesy juvenile gags that most blockbusters fall prey too.
Action is where he truly excels though - delivering fast paced intense sequences that mark modern filmmaking, but shooting it all with an eye to the timeless classics of adventure serials long ago. Yes there's effects work here but to enhance rather than be the focus of. His action style is about the big stunts and believable athletic derring-do rather than cheesy CG explosions and all too distracting fast-cut editing. The entire third act, including an astonishing three way sword fight within a spinning mill wheel, is one non-stop sequence really and it works beautifully. Early on there's also some great stuff as well, including a quite clever and funny scene about imprisoned crew mates racing each other in a crawl up the side of a cliff.
The effects are also spectacular, the most notable being Davy Jones himself. Bill Nighy plays the tentacled terror and imbues it with not just his signature voice but some unique expressions too (such as a penchant for puffing out his top lip). What's surprising here is that there's no makeup, Nighy's look is entirely CG despite the fact that more than half the time much of his face looks photoreal, especially the eyes and at some points the tentacles. The character may lack the depth of say Gollum for the "Lord of the Rings" movies, but he's a good basic evil foil (lacking that great touch of fun that Geoffrey Rush brought in the first film) and the effect itself is uncanny in the little moments (such as his pipe smoking).
Not to take away from the rest of the film's effects either - the designs of the various Flying Dutchmen crew is truly inspired, each of the sailors slowly turning into elements of the sea. Some of the shots look a little too animated (ala "The Mummy"), but for the most part their solid and their clever design makes up for their occasional lapse into 'too animated territory'. A similar deal with the movie's big monster, the giant squid like 'Kraken' who's mouth may look like something out of "Deep Rising", but its tentacles are excellent and in some shots (namely where its suckers slide around the edges of a cannon) are totally convincing.
Whilst some pacing issues and a slightly less flippant at first Johnny Depp stop the film from achieving the levels of greatness of its predecessor, "Dead Man's Chest" still easily stands out as the best film of the Summer season so far - even if it isn't quite good enough to really be called a 'saviour' of the season. A more than worthy sequel to the 2003 hit, its occasionally mishandled first hour is offset by a thoroughly entertaining second half and improvements in most areas ranging from character and story to direction and effects. A relative triumph that'll have you keen to check out the third film.