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Published: Friday, 7/7/2006

Movie review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Pirates pictures are about Johnny Depp's savvy ability to command a screen and his intriguingly bizarre creation, Capt. Jack Sparrow. The Pirates pictures are about Johnny Depp's savvy ability to command a screen and his intriguingly bizarre creation, Capt. Jack Sparrow.
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Yo (ho ho), Disney:

If you guys ever do get around to making a third sequel (along with a fourth, fifth, sixth ...) to the 2003 blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - the first one opens today, the second (already in the can) next summer - I have a suggestion for slashing production costs. Just sign Johnny Depp. Maybe a gofer to cake on his black eyeliner. All right, someone to work with a camera, too.

As for everybody else?

It's nice to give Orlando Bloom a job, and these films do seem to single-handedly employ every British and Australian actor with an interestingly pocked pirate's face and no obvious dental plan. But the Pirates pictures are as much about Depp's savvy ability to command a screen and his intriguingly bizarre creation, Capt. Jack Sparrow, rapscallion of the seven seas, as they are about ...

No, that's about it.

But it's plenty:

Depp and his uncanny talent for reminding us special effects may be clever and Hollywood blockbusters occasionally smart, but what audiences adore, what makes them exhibit the genuine warmth shown the first Pirates film, is the unexpected gesture, the odd line that sounds unscripted ("I feel sullied and unusual"), the casual way an actor rolls his eyes and undercuts the hugeness of it all, even though that scene itself represents $15 million and four weeks of work.

Harrison Ford was once a master of this. Now Depp is. For example, in this latest Pirates:

Depp: "Is this a dream?"

Special-effects ghost: "No."

Depp: "Yeah, there'd be rum."

The appeal of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, all nine zillion dollars worth of it, with its remarkable army of fish people and sea beasts, with Keira Knightley latched into a corset and way more plot than it needs - the draw is still equivalent to that of a Bugs Bunny short. Depp himself famously said Captain Jack is a mash of the fey languidness of Keith Richards and the rascally smarm of Pepe Le Pew, but the better comparison is Bugs. Or perhaps Bob Hope in one of his road pictures with Bing Crosby.

Depp owns the film, of course. But when he isn't on the screen, when he isn't wandering obliviously about as expensive backdrops crumble around him and co-stars deliver lines he barely seems to hear (itself kind of charming), not only does the wind exit the sails but the entire film sweats to justify why he isn't on screen. And that's why a film that should be 90 minutes long runs 2 1/2 hours.

Trust me, you'll wonder.

Dead Man's Chest has a story, I'm afraid. Something about how Bloom's pirate has to retrieve a compass and save Knightley from prison. Meanwhile, Depp's pirate is being hunted by Davy Jones - a bundle of tentacles in a buccaneer costume that somehow looks like both Bill Nighy (who still shines beneath all the digital sparkle) and an octopus. There's also a Davy Jones employee with a secret close to Bloom; a whiff of romance between Bloom and Knightley; a smidgen of story about pirates being replaced by big business.

None of this matters, and for leisurely entertaining, meandering segments you're relieved the movie understands this. It takes a long time to find its direction, and you hardly notice as long as director Gore Verbinski grasps that a dallying plot of no purpose is the point.

There's a scene where Depp and Co. find themselves on an island full of cannibals. The sequence doesn't move the movie forward an inch. But it's played for such absurdist insanity, and you have such a good time watching Depp stumble through it like Buster Keaton, the moment the film returns to its plot, you hear the familiar creak and feel the lumbering of a summer blockbuster.

I don't mean to sound so down on it. Verbinski, whose craft is evident but whose personality has yet to come into focus, has a talent for atmosphere (The Ring) and melancholy (The Weather Man). But he's not entirely able to avoid the self-importance that attaches like barnacles to the hull of pictures this enormous.

Characters tend to talk self-servingly about the legend of Captain Jack. And the job of replicating the fun of the original veers dangerously close to that of a party host rushing around demanding everyone have a good time - have FUN!

But all that said ... finally.

A few problems aside, here's a summer movie that doesn't feel like an obligation, a summer movie I can get behind without a deadly tangle of qualifiers. A Prairie Home Companion was pleasant - but Robert Altman is no one's idea of a beach read. Cars - dazzling but minor Pixar. Superman Returns - profoundly flawed. I couldn't pay most of you to take a chance on the silly fizz of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. But I bet the new Pirates barely needs a sales pitch, and with good reason: It's dedicated to the lost art of laughing through an action scene. Sounds obvious? It is rarely attempted.

The island paradises in this picture are real but the characters in them are so joyously fake, Verbinski captures that feeling for Walt Disney World, where the artificial is around the next corner. (And you can touch it if you want.)

Remember, this is a movie based on an amusement park ride, and so we always have something to look at and every view gets crammed with production value. And there's no angst, either; you would think a sequel might want to dig deep into the background of Captain Jack, find out why he does the unsavory things he does. But this one has too much wit to bother. (Leave the soul-searching for Batman.)

Oh, I wish it was simpler.

I wish we weren't looking so much into the eerie digital mugs of Davy Jones and his crew, who appear to have gone through a bout of Kafkaesque metamorphosis with an entire fish market only to turn chicken of the sea. I wish some movies could keep a secret and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - certain to be the year's biggest hit - wasn't so desperate.

But it turns out to be that rare thing anyway, a slice of pop that appeals to everyone. Spider-Man and The Lord of the Rings have a geek factor, regardless of their box office. But Pirates of the Caribbean reminds you of a time when everyone heard the No. 1 hit song in the nation and everyone watched network TV and wasn't scattered to the four winds of cable and the Internet.

It only wants you to love it.

And you probably will.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.


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