July 30, 2006

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

The first Pirates of the Caribbean film, in 2003, was a complete surprise, at least to me. Who ever would have thought that a movie based on a roller coaster attraction would have been such a big hit? Besides being a hit, it introduced the world to another character creation from the versatile Johnny Depp. Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow stands as one of the best new characters of recent memory. The quirky swashbuckler, based in part on Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, is a big screen original, and enjoyable enough for Depp that it has become the first time he has played the same character in more than one film.

Following that initial success, Disney decided to go the same route that Back to the Future and The Matrix sequels went, filming the second and third entries simultaneously. The first of them hit theaters the first week of July and has proceeded to set the box office afire. I have seen the film twice, proving to be even more enjoyable the second time around.

This time the story revolves around Captain Jack's debt to Davy Jones, the captain of the Flying Dutchman. At some point in the past, Sparrow made a deal with Jones to captain the Black Pearl, but that deal has run out and it is time to settle the debt. Of course, Jack doesn't want that to happen, and the hunt for the chest of the title is on.

Captain Jack is not alone on his quest, nor is Jones the only villain of the picture. Lord Beckett gets the proceedings underway by arresting Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann for helping Sparrow in the first film. Of course, this turns out to be a way to get Will to agree to search for Jack and return with his magic compass. You see, Beckett is also looking for the chest, for who controls the chest can control Jones, and therefore, the seas.

The first half of the movie contains a lot of exposition. Most of the story is being set up here as the players are all moved into position. Will and Elizabeth are split up for much of this time as they each take they own way in reuniting with Jack. The former Commodore Norrington is also brought back into the picture as he attempts to regain his position. Not to be left out is the comical duo of Pintel and Ragetti, injecting themselves into the story and proving to be pretty handy with the sword.

One thing that I found interesting about the story progression was the way certain characters were dealt with and the way that some happenings later in the film were explained, or suggested, by small details earlier on. This came to my attention by the way certain points were being discussed on message boards. Details like why the creature is pursuing him, and why people want the chest, but not to destroy the contents.

The story puts moral ambiguities in the forefront. Captain Jack is portrayed is being a bit more selfish this time around, he seems to give up his friends if it would serve to save his skin. However, in the unspoken actions, and the way things are setup, one can never be sure. On the other side, Elizabeth's fascination with pirates may have boiled over into becoming a reality. There is Davy Jones, who may not be a nice guy, but is he really a villain? All he is seeking to do is collect the payment on a deal that had been made. Then, what is Beckett's motivations? He may not have a lot of screen time, but there is no denying that he has something up his sleeve.

The biggest problem with the store is that nothing, and I mean nothing, is resolved. Granted, this was a prequel of sorts for the third film, but this leaves a lot open if you hope to introduce anything new in the next entry it is going to potentially be awfully crowded.

Aside from the story, there is some great action. There is a bar room fight which is energetic, and fun, watch as Jack goes through the fight looking for a new hat. There is also an extended sequence where the good captain is about to be cooked for a cannibalistic feast. This is split between two locations, first is Jack trying to get off the spit and avoid all of the hungry natives, the other has Will and the crew of the Black Pearl hanging in ball shaped cages and their route of escape. Sure, it doesn't have much to do with the plot at large, but it is a highly entertaining sequence, especially Jack's race with the pole still strapped to his back.

The action centerpiece takes place towards the end of the film, and escalates from a three way sword fight into a fracas involving the crews of the Pearl and the Dutchman. Captain Jack, Will, and Norrington engage in a fight over the just found chest, while Elizabeth pleads for it to end. Ragetti and Pintel then attempt to remove temptation, drawing Elizabeth's attention. Meanwhile the Dutchman crew are coming ashore looking for that chest. The centerpiece of this fight is the three-way swordfight making its way to a runaway wheel. The entire sequence is spectacular and well edited. Oftentimes fights are chopped to bits in the editing room so that you cannot tell what is going on. This fight was perfectly understandable and easy to follow.

The effects are the best of the year, with Davy Jones taking his place among the greatest CG characters ever to grace the silver screen. I could not believe it when I discovered that he was completely CG. When I saw the film a second time, I kept looking at Jones' eyes, and they were completely convincing. Beyond Jones, his crew are beautifully realized in all their decaying glory. ILM truly outdid themselves.

Bottomline. Gore Verbinski is fast becoming a player, even if no one saw his underrated The Weather Man. This may not stand up to the original, but it is a highly entertaining middle chapter which leaves me thirsting for more. Plus, anything with Johnny Depp is worth my time.

Highly Recommended.
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