Chief Counsel Michael Stailey always longed to be a swashbuckling pirate, but the whole seasickness thing kind of got in the way.
Our review of Pirates Of The Caribbean Trilogy (Blu-Ray), published September 15th, 2008, is also available.
From a project on the verge of implosion before principal photography even began to one of the biggest box offices successes of all time, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest frustrated, confused, confounded, and thrilled cast, crew, audiences, and critics alike. With its arrival on DVD in this two-disc special edition, it's time to re-examine one of cinema's most debated blockbusters. Ladies and gentlemen, draw your swords!
Facts of the Case
When last we left our intrepid heroes, Will (Orlando Bloom) had professed his love for Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), saved Jack (Johnny Depp) from the hangman's noose, and enabled the swarthy Captain's dramatic retreat to the helm of the Black Pearl. It's unclear how much time has elapsed when the curtain opens, but Will and Elizabeth's wedding has been interrupted by Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) and the Royal British Forces, Captain Jack is escaping from an unknown prison inside a floating coffin with a picture of a cryptic key, Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport) has gone AWOL, and the evil dead monkey is still at large. In order for Will and Elizabeth to escape the punishment of death for aiding and abetting Jack, they must retrieve Jack's compass for the East India Trading Company in exchange for a full pardon. Sounds like a straightforward deal. But there's one slight problem: Jack has an unpaid debt to legendary lord of the pirate underworld—Davy Jones (Bill Nighy)—and it's about to wreak havoc with everyone's plans.
There are several things we need to get out of the way before we begin. Yes, this is a Disney picture. Yes, this is a movie based on a theme park ride. Yes, this is a big budget sequel. Yes, it is one of the top grossing films of all-time. And yes, it left many audiences infuriated. Now set all that aside, because there's much more to this story than you ever imagined.
Dead Man's Chest was greenlit without a script (not all that unusual). It also had a release date set in cement (not entirely unheard of). Now here's where things get complicated. It was half of a two-picture deal (okay)…filming simultaneously (oh boy)…and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio hadn't a clue what the story would be. Seriously. Director Gore Verbinski and production designer Rick Heinrichs visually conceived many of the film's most elaborate scenes, long before words were ever put to paper. This explains why the film feels bloated, the storyline meanders, and there are so many plot holes and unanswered questions. Working backwards to force a story to fit pre-scouted locations, storyboarded action sequences, and an immovable budget is not the ideal process for effective filmmaking.
What we end up with is the Empire Strikes Back of this trilogy—three separate storylines (one for each of our heroes) ultimately converging into one: Will doing everything in his power to secure Elizabeth's freedom; Elizabeth doing everything in her power to secure Will's freedom; and Jack doing everything he can to save his own skin…again.
Unfortunately, it takes a while to get this behemoth rolling. It isn't until the 47 minute mark that real story begins: Jack goes to voodoo priestess Tia Dalma to discover the location of the mysterious key and in the process obtains a wee bit of protection from the watchful eye of Davy Jones and his Kraken. Will takes up the challenge of boarding the Flying Dutchman to locate the key, in exchange for Jack's compass, which he will hand over to Lord Beckett for Elizabeth's freedom. And Elizabeth pulls a Twelfth Night, stowing away as a member of Port Royale crew bound for Tortuga in hopes of locating Jack. Keep those scorecards updated; you're going to need them as these plotlines unfold over the next 100 minutes.
Don't misread my sarcasm. Dead Man's Chest is not the appalling death of narrative cinema some of my esteemed colleagues would have you believe. It's actually a rich tapestry of characters and settings that is impossible to digest in one setting. I didn't pick up on all of the little nuances and reveals until the third or fourth time through, and believe me, there are a lot of them. Truth be told, it reminds me of the Monkey Island computer RPG series LucasArts created back in early 1990s. In this case, the audience is Guybrush Threepwood, traveling from strange location to stranger location, encountering all manner of dynamic personalities, collecting unique artifacts, and racking our collective brains to discover how it's all supposed to fit together. And for me it works.
Verbinski is a genius when it comes to conceiving and filming non-CG enhanced, comedic action sequences. Take the best of Steven Spielberg and Terry Gilliam and you end up with Jack-kabob, the bone cages, the three-way sword fight on the beach, and the battle wheel sequence. His location scouting practices, although unorthodox, are extremely effective. You won't find more awe-inspiring scenery and detailed set dressing in many other films. And the character designs for Davy Jones crew alone are worth keeping the pause button on your remote close at hand. It's some of the best work Industrial Light and Magic has ever done, based on revolutionary new motion capture technology.
The casting is impeccable. Johnny Depp continues to chew scenery gleefully as everyone's favorite reluctant pirate. Tom Hollander (Gosford Park) is spot on as the sleazy, upwardly mobile weasel Cutler Beckett. Despite being buried beneath their CG facades, Bill Nighy (Underworld) turns in an award worthy performance as Davy Jones, the heartbroken, demented scourge of the watery depths, and Stellan Skarsgard (Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist) as Bootstrap Turner, a father whose love for his son outweighs any punishment heaven or hell can inflict upon him. Naomie Harris (Miami Vice) is eerily mesmerizing in an all too brief performance as Tia Dalma. And in an unusual turn, two actors rise to the occasion, giving much more to their characters the second time around—Kevin McNally (The Phantom of the Opera) as Gibbs is the glue of the Black Pearl's now skeleton crew (no pun intended), and Jack Davenport (Coupling) as the depressed ex-Commodore James Norrington grows some balls and sets up the film's biggest punch leading into third film. Yes, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom are both here as well, but sorry to say neither do anything to further the value of their characters from the first picture.
And for Disney enthusiasts, there are plenty of nods to the classic attraction that inspired it…
• The dog with the jail keys
That being said, Dead Man's Chest is not a perfect film. First off, it's a transitional picture, setting up the adventure that lies ahead in At World's End. Middle films of trilogies all suffer similar fates—great build ups with little payoff. Audiences are left hanging, awaiting the resolution of the series climax. Besides that, there are far too many plot holes and unanswered questions for my liking…
• What was that hellish prison Jack escaped from at the beginning of the film?
• How would anyone who hadn't seen the first film know what is going on?
• Who is Tia Dalma, where does she come from, and what is her history with Jack?
• Who was the woman that broke Davy Jones heart?
• If Davy Jones is all that powerful, how can the possession of the chest truly control the sea? The threat of death to him should mean little and once his heart is destroyed, the Dutchman ceases to be and there is no one to control the Kraken. So what's the real end game here?
• I'm sorry, developing feelings between Jack and Elizabeth?
• And last, but not least…Barbossa?!?
All this aside, the real downfall of Dead Man's Chest occurred in two places: the writers' room, and the editing room. When approached about the two sequel deal, writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio admitted they blew all their Pirate knowledge and tricks on Treasure Planet and Curse of the Black Pearl. Now forced back into service and writing on the fly, often on set, made for quite the unsettling process—for writers and director alike. And while Curse of the Black Pearl won Verbinski's team an Eddie Award for "Best Edited Feature" from American Cinema Editors, this film won't even be considered. The reason? The absence of Oscar winner Arthur Schmidt (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and much more). If there is one man you desperately needed for this series, it's Arthur, and for whatever reason he abandoned ship, leaving Craig Wood (Forces of Nature, Mousehunt) and Stephen Rivkin (Hot Dog: The Movie, Stealth) to fend for themselves…and the results are obvious. The story needed tightening and its 150 minute run time could have been easily trimmed. Unfortunately, when you have only 200 days of principal photography to shoot more than a film and a half, your options are limited, and this cast and crew made the most of the situation. It's kamikaze filmmaking on the grandest scale possible, and for that they should be commended.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer looks pristine on a 1080p upscaled player and HDTV. You'll see hints of grain every now and again, but that was evident in the theatrical release as well. The dark rich palette of the film's interiors envelope your darkened living room, and heat of the sun drenched exteriors will warm any doubter's cold heart. One wonders how much better the film will look when released on Disney Blu-ray. As for the audio, sound designer Christopher Boyes' work on Peter Jackson's King Kong has paid off in spades. The Dolby 5.1 surround is one of the best mixes of any recent blockbuster. The resonant bass of Hans Zimmer's operatic, pulse-pounding score will quickly draw the attention of your neighbors. Crank this one up to 11 and savor every ship deck creak, monkey squeal, and canon fire.
Regardless of where you fall on spectrum of Dead Man's Chest reactions, the bonus materials included on this two-disc special edition are worth their weight in gold.
Disc one contains laughs and insights.
• Bloopers of the Caribbean shows just how much fun this crew had, despite all of the elements conspiring against them. They are truly are a family. Aspiring actors: note how Johnny never breaks character, even when screwing up.
• The Writers Commentary is subdued, but interesting nonetheless—the original conceived opening, Jonathan Pryce's demands for appearing in the sequels, choosing to retrofit the first film into a larger engineered story instead of creating another stand-alone story, how Johnny's improvisations from the first film wound up becoming plot points, deciding to leave certain details out on purpose ("give the audience 2+2 and let them figure out what it equals"), drawing inspiration from Disney Imagineer Marc Davis and The Simpsons, and much, much more. Ted and Terry know their craft inside and out, but this project was one tremendous challenge and they sound exhausted.
Disc two will make you appreciate all the sweat, blood, and pitfalls of big budget filmmaking.
• Charting the Return—A 26 minute behind the scenes featurette, documenting pre-production. This is pretty much a setup for the featurette to follow.
• According to Plan—The meat of the bonus material—it's 63 minutes of highlights from 200 days with Gore Verbinski in hell. You will never witness a project in more disarray. How they pulled this off is an absolute miracle.
• Captain Jack: Head to Tie—A multi-part look into Johnny's character and costume design. Do yourself a huge favor and select "Play All."
• Mastering the Blade—A three segment training session for Orlando, Keira, and Jack Davenport.
• Meet Davy Jones: Anatomy of a Legend—A fascinating looking at the revolutionary work that went into creating one of Disney's greatest villains.
• Creating the Kraken—Drawing upon centuries of folklore and myth and the visual inspiration of the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Gore Verbinski played a key role in the development of Davy Jones hired muscle.
• Dead Men Tell New Tales: Reimagineering the Attraction—One of my personal favorites! An in-depth look at the attraction that inspired the film and how it's been updated, with Johnny Depp and X. Atencio (writer of the dialogue and lyrics) along for the ride.
• Fly on the Set: The Bone Cage—A quick look at the blue screen long shots and close-ups, including Marty getting sick.
• Jerry Bruckheimer: A Producer's Photo Diary—Spend a few minutes with the uber-producer as he waxes on location shoots, the cast, the crew, and more. Jerry's actually a great photographer.
• Pirates on Main Street: The Dead Man's Chest Premiere—A maniacal press event for the film's premiere at Disneyland. You've never seen a longer, wilder red carpet—2,000 feet—the longest press line in Hollywood history.
Jack Davenport has a great line in According to Plan that sums things up perfectly—"There's the odd moment when you lose the eighth pound in weight that day from sweating so much and you kinda think, grrrrrr…I can do without all this. And then you remember where you are and what you're doing and anything other than pathetically grateful is an inappropriate response." It's easy for us as moviegoers and critics to sit back and casually pass judgment on films. By doing so without knowing the whole story, knowing how much blood, sweat, and tears these hundreds, if not thousands of people have invested in the project, we're doing them all a tremendous injustice. You may not have enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest for any number of reasons, but each of us, to a person, must respect the film for what it is and appreciate how far it came.
Not guilty, you slimy bilge rats. Now get off my ship!
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Scales of Justice
• Writers' Audio Commentary
Review content copyright © 2006 Michael Stailey; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.