It's almost embarrassing how closely "Dead Man's Chest" tries to replicate 2003's "The Curse of the Black Pearl." Once again, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is in dire legal straights, lovers Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) are forced apart -- this time right at the altar, and a whole new ghost ship of pirate ghouls appears with yet another highly-coveted item causing all the mayhem. About all that's different this time around is a more lugubrious running time (150 minutes), set pieces that stretch believability well past the breaking point and makeup effects so grotesque that they may well put the fragile tenure of the PG-13 rating in jeopardy.
Without going too deeply into the ridiculously convoluted plot, everything centers on a certain Davy Jones (an unrecognizable Bill Nighy), another ghost-pirate whose ship, the Flying Dutchman, spends most of its time around the ocean floor, causing its captive crew to biologically fuse with various forms of sea life. Jones himself has gone completely mollusk with a face forged from an octopus that includes tentacles for a beard, while one of his lieutenants has a head shaped like that of a hammerhead shark. And they're the pretty ones. For some silly reason, however, Jones' heart needs to be on dry land, so it resides in a buried chest somewhere. And that means that whoever possesses the heart can theoretically control the formidable Jones. Thrown unwillingly into this intrigue yet again are Turner and Swann, who really only want each other and to once and for all be rid of all this pirate nonsense; Sparrow, who owes Jones a pretty hefty debt; and the usual assortment of clueless English seamen who always seem to muck everything up.
Astonishingly, the Disney studio drones judged this plot -- once again scripted by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio -- to be enough of a no-brainer to justify shooting two films back-to-back. No need to gauge the success of the second before moving on to the third: If audiences flocked to the first one, then simply following the formula of the first will bring them flocking to the second and, by extension, the third, right?
Time will tell -- but odds are that Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer may be in for a sobering surprise. For what really brought audiences flocking to the first was the fact that it contravened expectations that it was to be simply a cheap big screen conversion of a popular theme park ride and actually delivered endearing characters and a story that was exciting and fun. The sequel, rather than attempting to contravene expectations, actually trades on them. And despite some solid direction from returning director Gore Verbinski, it's clear that this is now a by-the-numbers effort in which Verbinski's usually reliable skills are minimized by studio oversight. Like most other blockbusters of late, it should do big numbers, but whether those numbers will be big enough to fight off the inevitably bad word of mouth seems very unlikely. Starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Bill Nighy, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgard and Tom Hollander. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. A Buena Vista release. Action-Adventure. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of adventure violence, including frightening images. Running time: 150 min