Capt. Jack Sparrow doesn’t see employment as freedom. That’s a line applied to Johnny Depp’s infamous pirate and could have applied to Depp himself, back when he was one of Hollywood’s most fiercely independent actors.
Now, he’s in the shackled employ of the Disney Company, the centerpiece of an action movie franchise based on a theme park ride — and yet, somehow, he has found artistic freedom because of it.
In “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” the jolly spirit Depp perfected in the first “Pirates” film haunts every scene of this wonderful movie, which cements the franchise as the greatest family adventure serial since Indiana Jones hung up his fedora.
The comparison to Harrison Ford is intentional when it comes to Depp. Imagine if Han Solo’s character development was arrested after the first “Star Wars” film, and you get Capt. Jack: a selfish, charming scoundrel who will only save the day to save his own hide. He was a revelation in the first film; this one makes him an icon.
With a tighter narrative and more comedy than the first film, “Chest” speeds along like the Black Pearl herself through several adventures towards an hour-long, slam-bang finale of swords and sea monsters. Ah, and what monsters, matee: “Dead Man’s Chest” refers to the treasure trunk of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), a slimy beastie with a face like scungilli and a lobster-claw hand. He and his crew — cursed pirates doomed to live as half sea creature/half human mutants — are the most freighting, fully-realized CGI characters ever put to film.
The plank’s over there, Gollum…
Sparrow again enlists heroic Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and his fiancée Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley, sensual and spirited) to help him find a key, which will open the chest, which will give him leverage against Jones, to whom he owes a substantial debt. Don’t worry: there’s a pirate named Gibbs (Kevin McNally) who literally explains every plot development, filling the time between kinetic action scenes.
The unsung hero of these two films is director Gore Verbinski, who long ago showed a talent for physical comedy in a movie called “Mousehunt.” Here, every amusing sword battle and thrilling escape logically moves the story along. When Jones unleashes a creature called the Kraken, Verbinski makes the skirmishes exhilarating and terrifying — it’s the squid attack from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” on steroids.
I love these characters, the world they inhabit, and the undeniable joy that emanates from nearly every performer in every scene. And it’s love — tragic, overwhelming, requited and unrequited — that propels the film to quite a dire conclusion; but just when all seemed lost, an ingenious twist left me yearning to see where next year’s third “Pirates” adventure takes us … and where Depp takes that scoundrel Capt. Jack.