Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
July 2006

'Dead Man' walking

The 'Pirates of the Caribbean' sequel offers more of the same--and I mean that as a compliment

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenplay: Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio
Starring: Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Bill Nighy, Kevin McNally, Jack Davenport, Tom Hollander, Stellan Skarsgard, Mackenzie Crook and Jonathan Pryce
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 30 minutes
Opens July 7, 2006
(out of four)

This kind of history cannot repeat itself -- it's impossible. The filmmakers behind Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest know this. They know that what happened with the first Pirates movie was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime deal -- a laughable idea (a movie based on a theme park ride?) that not only turned out to be really good, but which became one of the most rabidly popular pop-culture phenomena to come around in a long time. Disney knows that it cannot replicate the impact that the first one had -- A) the beginning of a new fad (swashbuckling, always a favorite pastime of mine); and B) Johnny Depp's invention of the eccentric Capt. Jack Sparrow.

The element of surprise is gone. Nothing can duplicate it. And yet, with the worldwide gross the original pulled down, sequels were inevitable. So what did they do? The smart thing, that's what. They brought back the same writing team and the same director. They brought back most of the cast and, in developing a story that will span two films, replicated enough of what worked from The Curse of the Black Pearl while still creating something that can stand on its own. The result (thankfully, in a summer of disappointments) is another success. No, it's not as good as the first one, for reasons I'll get to. But it's still a blast, and still exudes a kind of freshness and joy that makes it stand outside much of the rest of the summer stock.

As we all know, fun as the first one was, its success relied squarely on the shoulders of Depp, who created one of the most memorable characters we'd ever seen and suddenly became an international movie star. He was brilliant as the lovably bad Capt. Jack. Thankfully, for the sequel, the filmmakers resisted the temptation to focus too much on Jack -- the studio easily could have forced the filmmakers' hands on this one, to pander to audiences and such, but it didn't.

And thus, the dynamic remains the same: The "good guys" -- Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) keep the plot moving, while Jack is here and there, skirting the edges of both good and bad and, not surprisingly, stealing every scene. Again. (And he has a great entrance, too. Very fashionable.)

Yes, the novelty factor is gone this time, but it still works. A lot.

But, oh yeah -- the plot! Will and Elizabeth have been arrested for assisting in Jack's escape, and their only path to a pardon -- thanks to the cunning evil genius of Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) -- is to find Jack and acquire his mysterious compass, which, at first glance, doesn't actually seem to work.

Then there is the matter of Davy Jones (the great Bill Nighy, of Love Actually and Underworld) and his crew, all of whom are, um, dead (?), and have taken the form of sea creatures of all kinds. In Davy's case, it's an octopus, which not only gives him foul breath, but also the sweetest beard since Friedrich Engels.

While Davy is after Jack's job as captain of the Black Pearl, everyone else is after the chest that contains Davy's heart. (Think of it as a sort of safety deposit box for pirates.) I won't get into all the specifics -- that's just part of the fun. Much of the plot is just the groundwork for a series of often-sensational action sequences, featuring, once again, impressive special effects and some rather clever choreography.

There are three setpieces that impressed me in particular. The first involves Jack's escape from being roasted as a shish-kabob (which includes a very funny upside-down pole vault from one cliff to another). The second is a three-man sword fight that takes place inside a giant water wheel. And the third occurs in the third act and, well, I don't want to spoil the surprise -- but I will say it involves a pirate ship and some very large tentacles.

The action, the special effects, the sets -- all of this adds up to a movie in which there is always something on screen to sink your teeth into. However, the amount of action is also the film's handicap. The action scenes are great and all, but a few of them go on for WAY too long (way), and a few more probably could have been left out altogether. The result is some pacing problems and a bit too much monotony.

Director Gore Verbinski (fresh off the wonderful and underrated The Weather Man) clearly wants to please his audience -- and for the most part, he does. But if he could have toned it down a little, and given his characters and storylines a little more room to breathe, Dead Man's Chest may not seem so overstuffed.

Where Verbinski and his crew got it right, once again, is with the casting. Nighy, while completely covered in makeup, costume and effects work, brings the perfect personality to the role of Davy, and Stellan Skarsgard -- as Bootstrap Bill, Will's long-disintegrating father -- gives a nice supporting role.

Butů

I do have one other problem, one no one can do anything about, and which did not come as a surprise -- and it is Orlando Bloom.

(WARNING! Soapbox alert! Soapbox alert!)

I think many things of Orlando Bloom, and here are two of them:

1. He is the luckiest person in Hollywood, perhaps the world.

2. He has the greatest agent, in any profession, in the history of this planet.

This Orlando Bloom situation is a curious one, but both of the above statements must be true. With this franchise and the Lord of the Rings series, he is, technically speaking, already one of the most financially successful "movie stars" of all-time. That is the curious part. Because let's be realistic -- neither of the two franchises has succeeded because of him.

No one would have remembered The Curse of the Black Pearl were it not for Depp, and the Rings trilogy would have been exactly as good without him. (The same cannot be said for Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Ian McKellen, Sean Bean or those two other little hobbit fellas.) He has been riding coattails for six years -- what we're left with is a so-called "movie star" who can't actually sell a film (as proven by his two lead roles, Kingdom of Heaven and Elizabethtown, both of which bombed at the box-office). He's the movie equivalent of Jeff Probst or Kevin Federline -- no discernable talent, but they're riding the waves of massive pop-culture phenomena.

You know how Jud Buechler won three NBA championships with the Bulls? Yeah, it's kinda like that.

Why is this? Because, frankly, Bloom brings nothing to the table -- except, of course, for the fact that he's a cutesy-wootsy and still looks like he's 12. But he's just plain boring. He has exactly one facial expression and exactly one tone of voice for every possible emotion or situation. (I can do a great impression, too.)

It's true. His characters -- like Will Turner, for instance -- don't have any discernible personality traits. He's the master at playing the flat, nondescript hero. Quick -- name me one character trait that Will Turner has, not including "brave" or "heroic" or "romantic" (which are stock-character traits, not individual ones). Anyone?

Still, I liked him just fine in The Lord of the Rings, but he's completely uninteresting here. I mean, wouldn't we all rather see Elizabeth to shack up with Capt. Jack?

Anyway, I only say this because Bloom is sharing the screen with a bunch of perfectly cast actors whose performances are rewarding and whose characters they actually give life to. (Including Mackenzie Crook as the glass-eyed Ragetti and Kevin McNally as Gibbs, Jack's first mate.) Perhaps that's just another compliment to the movie itself -- it may step wrong from time to time, but when it gets it right, it really gets it right.

Yes, Dead Man's Chest proves that there is still plenty to be done with this story and these characters -- and hopefully that holds true next summer.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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