Monday, July 17, 2006

Film Review - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

The North American box office must be in serious jeopardy if it is now having to rely solely on the pirate genre, a one time perennial box office poison, to jump-start the summer season which to put it gently (because frankly it has been kicked around enough as it is) has been disappointing. Nearly every new entry in the past two months including Mission: Impossible III, Disney/Pixar’s Cars (although it has managed to scrape its way past the two-hundred million dollar mark domestically), comedian Adam Sandler’s Click, and, surprisingly, Superman Returns (X-Men: The Last Stand being the sole exception to the rule this season) has underperformed at the box office in its opening weekend. What’s more is that less then three years ago box office as well as Wall Street analysts, not to mention a few out of touch studio executives at the Walt Disney Company, waited in anticipation for Jerry Bruckheimer’s pirate epic, a period piece mind you, to fall flat on its face only to be sorely disappointed and astonished at its success. It is truly amazing what three years and six-hundred and fifty-three million dollars world-wide, three-hundred and five million dollars domestically and three-hundred and forty-eight million in overseas sales, can do. And that’s not even including the hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly chartering into the billions, the Walt Disney Corporation has made off of DVD and merchandise sales as well as the recently revamped theme park attractions in Florida and California. Yes, a healthy dose of Captain Jack Sparrow may be exactly what the doctor ordered.

The story for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is far more complex and intricate then the original was three years ago, attempting to seamlessly weave together a variety of individual storylines – the enduring romance between Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, Will’s impromptu reunion with his father aboard the Flying Dutchman, Captain Jack Sparrow’s search for the Dead Man’s Chest, etc. – and at times it feels a bit overloaded even at an exhaustive pace of two hours and thirty-one minutes. But because it continually switches gears from one subplot to the other, the film never feels long. It was perhaps foolhardy on the part of the filmmakers to have not one but three villains in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Davy Jones, Admiral James Norrington, and Lord Cutler Beckett). Little time is devoted to background information regarding either the phantasmal Davy Jones or Lord Cutler Beckett. For instance, if you did not read the official premise for the movie you probably would not be aware that Lord Beckett is a pirate hunter which would explain his interest in Jack Sparrow and more importantly the chest of Davy Jones. As for Davy Jones, audiences are left with more questions then answers. How did he become ruler of the Seven Seas? Who is the woman he fell in love with and who ultimately broke his heart? More may be elaborated on in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End but more likely it will concentrate on Jack Sparrow’s fate then anything else.

Acting legend Johnny Depp returns in top form, as if audiences could have expected anything less from him, in the role that brought him the most publicity and acclaim in his embracive thirty-plus filmmaking career, Captain Jack Sparrow. Not only is there a far darker tone to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest in comparison to the original and to the franchise overall but also to the character development of Captain Jack as well. Audience for the most part may have sided with him in the first installment of the series but his underhanded and narcissistic actions in the second movie will leave them a little more open-ended in terms of their alliances to the characters. Captain Jack’s philosophy (if you want to call it that) as he stated in the first movie is simple – there’s what a man can do and what a man can’t do. This of course leaves a lot of leg room for moral ambiguity. As a pirate he is viewed as the total manifestation of anarchy and freedom – opposition to government, rules, authority, and moral guidelines. And while this grants him the freedom to not be tied down or obligated to anyone, it in turn prevents him from forming alliances or relationships with anyone other then himself. This of course includes Will and Elizabeth. It may not be the side of Captain Jack Sparrow everyone, especially his fans, want to see but it is certainly hard to argue with the fact that it is in tune with his character. Captain Jack Sparrow has always walked a thin line between heroism and anti-heroism. Despite being a pirate, he has never been a pure villain as much as he tries to portray himself as. He struggles with his identity all the way to the bitter end where he comes to grips with who he is, smiles, takes up his sword and meets his ultimate fate with the Kraken.

Keira Knightly is nothing short of stunning in this movie, possibly more so then she was in the first installment of the series. Elizabeth Swann undergoes a considerable amount of character development in Dead Man’s Chest which will leave audiences dumbfounded. The passionate kiss she shares with Captain Jack Sparrow near the end of the film, witnessed briefly by Will Turner, as he and the crew jump ship to escape the wrath of the Kraken, is an intriguing plot twist. It shares more then a striking resemblance to the supposed love-triangle between Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. Whether it will end in the same result or not has yet to be seen. An added bonus is the chase scene in the last thirty minutes of the movie in which an exasperate Elizabeth yells at Will, Jack, and former-Commodore Norrington who are crossing swords with each other for possession of the key to the Dead Man’s Chest, “Let's just pull out our swords and start banging away at each other … I've had it! I've had it with wobbly-legged, rum soaked pirates!”

Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner is pushed to the background as the story shies away from his romance with Keira Knightly’s Elizabeth (they barely appear together accept for the beginning and near the end of the movie) and more toward the fate of Captain Jack Sparrow. Even the subplot with his long thought dead father, Bootstrap Bill Turner, who reappears having joined Davy Jones’s crew aboard the Flying Dutchman is only slightly touched upon. This however is likely to change next summer with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. In the meantime Bloom has approved as an actor since his appearance in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and does a wonderful job bringing out the heroic nature of Will Turner, an improvement from the original.

Captain Davy Jones, played with phenomenal gusto by British actor Bill Nighy, is a spectacular addition to the action-adventure series. He is a masterful blend of ingenious acting prowess and truly representational computer-animated special effects. The tentacles on Jones’s face twitch and contort with his constantly changing moods. Smoke even blows out the side of his face. While his octopus-like appearance was achieved by applying computer generated special effects to a motion-capture suit worn by the actor, it is so realistic, particularly scenes shot in the daylight, it is easy to confuse it with a prosthetic mask. Jones himself is an especially licentious piece of work, snapping at a sailor who witnessed a fellow shipmate have his throat slit, “Life is cruel. Why should the afterlife be any different?” He is what truly brings out the sinister nature of the sequel.

Overall, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest does the franchise and the theme park attraction on which it is based justice. It stands alone as the best movie of the summer season, if not the entire year so far, and comes closer then most highly anticipated sequels like it to living up to the extraordinarily high expectations set upon it by the original. That said however there are at the very least a few issues to be raised. One of the dilemmas the film runs into is that unlike the original Curse of the Black Pearl three years ago, Dead Man’s Chest is not a film which stands on its own. Even though the original Star Wars movies and The Lord of the Rings projects were part of successful trilogies, they were each able to hold their own and distinguish themselves from one another. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise on the other hand plays more like The Matrix trilogy with only the first entry able to differentiate itself from the other two and the second, much like The Matrix Reloaded, ending in a cliff-hanger, practically begging the audience to come back a year later and see the third installment. Dead Man’s Chest’s two-hours and thirty-one minute running time is more of a side-note then an actual complaint. It’s a Jerry Bruckheimer production, so it is expected that his blockbuster dramas are to be quite lengthy. Additionally, if the original was able to make over three-hundred million dollars domestically in spite of its rather excessive time length given that it is a Walt Disney Pictures project, a film intended for family audiences, then it should not be an issue this time around. And while a vast majority of the computer-animated special effect sequences for the film were remarkably well-done, some of the scenes featuring the Kraken, the mythological squid-like creature which brings sea-faring ships to their doom, were not as effective as they could have been. The realism of some of the tentacles was not as consistent as the others, some particularly coming off as rather fraudulent in appearance. In any event, Dead Man’s Chest is a riveting action-adventure drama that’s nearly as fun as the original was three years ago, raising the original from a mere cult status to that of a cinematic phenomenon. The striking thing about the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is how it is able to routinely walk the thin-line between melodrama, comedy, horror, and history without alienating any particular audience demographic. It dabbles in each one just enough that it keeps the audience guessing as to what is to come next but not so much that it becomes dull, water-downed, or even preachy. Dead Man’s Chest is a bit more earnest in its approach to piracy and life and death then Curse of the Black Pearl was, so parents might be advised not to bring the younger ones to this film. If they insist on seeing the film, please forewarn them about the rather serious nature of the subject matter discussed in the movie.

And while the cliff-hanger as the end of Dead Man’s Chest may come as a bit of a surprise to some people, if you pay close attention to some of the details in the movie it will not come as a complete shock at least. It is a lot easier to catch these specifics the second time around then during the initial screening. Pay close attention to the scene where Captain Jack Sparrow pays a visit to Tia Delma, the gypsy queen, and receives from her a jar of dirt to protect him from Davy Jones. When Jack the monkey escapes from his cage, watch where he goes. When Tia Delma goes into the back room to retrieve the jar of dirt for Jack Sparrow, the monkey is sitting on a pair of familiar looking boots. Also, pay particularly close attention to the hat Captain Jack Sparrow is handling in the scene as well. He examines it as if he has seen it before which would be correct.

My Rating: **** ½ out of 5 (Grade: A)