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Johnny Depp keeps this engaging pirate franchise afloat

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest 

It's a plunder-ful life

That jumble of dreadlocks. Those kohl-smudged eyelids.That swishy sway. For three long years I've had my big blues fixed on the horizon, anxiously awaiting the return of Captain Jack Sparrow. Alternately hedonistic and heroic, both intoxicating and intoxicated, Captain Jack emerged from 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl as the least likely summer movie hero of the past... um, since the... well, ever, snagging Johnny Depp his first Oscar nomination and Disney nearly a zillion dollars. Then producer Jerry Bruckheimer called it a day, having decided sequels are stupid. The end.

Hey, you know who else takes great pleasure in lying? Pirates!

The short answer is that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is up to snuff. The irreplaceable Depp reprises what will undoubtedly become his signature role, and as Dead Man's Chest opens Captain Jack is shooting his way out of a floating casket, while Will (the dependably lackluster Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (necessary evil KeiraKnightley) have been arrested for aiding and abetting Captain Jack during the incidents memorialized in Black Pearl. Our story is set into motion when Will is forced to locate Captain Jack and fork him over to an unctuous superior (Tom Hollander, equally oily in Pride & Prejudice) in order to spare fiancée Elizabeth the gallows.

But Captain Jack has more troubling issues; even his loyal crew notices him "acting a bit strange...er." A chance encounter with Will's undead dad Bootstrap Bill Turner (Lars von Trier regular StellanSkarsgård) clues Captain Jack in to the fact that Davy Jones is on the hunt for him, looking to collect on an old debt. As played by an unrecognizable Bill Nighy (he walked off with Love, Actually), Davy Jones cuts a fearsome swath, sporting a pegleg, a juicy beard of tentacles, and massive crustacean claws where his hands should be. He commands The Flying Dutchman, a ship populated by doomed half-man/half-creature sailors whose names I didn't catch, but we will call Hammerhead Head, Lobster Guy, Fish Guts, and Conch Face.

Dead Man's Chest hinges on a race to find the titular vessel, which contains the still-thumping heart of Davy Jones, who reportedly secreted the organ away after its mishandling by a woman. Captain Jack is aided in this mission by trusty sidekick Gibbs (Kevin R. McNally, whose reaction shots to his boss are priceless) and a purring voodoo priestess (Naomie Harris, Tubbs' girlfriend in the forthcoming Miami Vice), as well as Elizabeth, initially intent on rescuing Will from Davy Jones' clutches but fighting a growing attraction to the alluring, albeit wobbly, Captain Jack.

Truthfully, the needlessly elaborate plot is probably just an excuse to stage some splendid set pieces, including a Caribbean standoff that culminates in some swashbuckling atop a runaway water wheel. But it's obvious that every single doubloon spent on Dead Man's Chest made it to the screen. The special effects are astounding, especially where The Flying Dutchman is concerned. Its monstrous crew --- they are a seamless blend of makeup and CGI --- man what is essentially a rickety ship with submarine capabilities; The Flying Dutchman roars out from depths it shares with the Kracken, a colossal undersea creature that decimates the enemies of Davy Jones at his bidding. Also worth mentioning are stunning tropical cinematography by Darius Wolski and Hans Zimmer's bombastic score, which showcases some catchy sea shanties.

Depp has Captain Jack honed to shrewd perfection and seems even more gifted when sharing the screen with Bloom and Knightley --- they're not bad, but they're not much more than dull plot devices who serve to facilitate the rollicking adventures of their woozy pirate pal. The standout this time around is Nighy, calling upon a thick brogue and making a cartoony fiend truly terrifying. Wondering if it's too scary for your kids? Younger than 8 or 9 may be a little frightened, but anyone who understands that it's all just make-believe (as well as those who dig a good rolling eyeball) will be fine.

So now I'm headed back to my widow's watch to bide my time until Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is released next summer. They've confirmed a cameo by Rolling Stone Keith Richards as Captain Jack's father, and Chow Yun-Fat's on board as well, ending a four-year absence from the American multiplex. Dead Man's Chest is overstuffed by about half an hour, but the ending, complete with a surprise appearance followed by the credits ruthlessly slamming onto the screen, made me wish it were 2007 already.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (PG-13), directed by Gore Verbinski, opens Friday, July 7, wherever there's electricity.

  • Johnny Depp keeps this engaging pirate franchise afloat

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