In his Oscar nominated performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp swanned through the first Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) with enough wicked zest to make you forget the film was a bloated crock. The flab extends to the overlong (two hours and thirty minutes) sequel, but mostly in the dawdling setup. A pirate could braid his beard in the time it takes for producer Jerry Bruckheimer's floating franchise to cut loose from the shoals of plot incoherence and put a wind in its sails. But once it does, nothing can stop it. The second Pirates does more than improve on the original, it pumps out the bilge and offers a fresh start. Returning director Gore Verinski and screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott have wisely taken a cue from Depp and learned how to play fast and loose with the material. Lively is an odd word for something called Dead Man's Chest, but lively it is. You won't find hotter action, wilder thrills or loopier laughs this summer.
Where did they go right? Start with Depp who could have hit paydirt just by repeating himself as Capt. Jack, the skeeviest pirate on the high seas. How easy it would be to let the dreads, the mascara and the gold teeth do the acting for him. Instead, Depp builds on the role, investing his pirate prince with quick wit, erotic mischief and a sneaky sense of decency. Keith Richards, who will play Jack's father in the third chapter of the series, is only one of Depp's inspirations for a character that keeps springing surprises. Depp's Capt. Jack is a classic comic creation and also the most subversive hero ever in a Disney movie — a debauched, bi-sexual narcissist with a devilish glint that suggests he'll never tell where he's stashed his drug kit. You can't take your eyes off him.
Issue a ration of rum to the other actors who have managed to scrape the barnacles off their performances. Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Orlando Bloom as Will, her intended, are finally asked to do more than stand around and look pretty and oh so pleased with themselves. Will meets up with his father Bootstrap Bill (the excellent Stellan Skarsgard) and Elizabeth finds her own inner pirate when she dresses up as a lad to stow away on ship. "I'm looking for the man I love," she tells Jack, whose retort —"I'm flattered, sir" — has a teasing kinkiness. When hottie fortune teller Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) comes on to Jack and Will with a question — "Do you want to know me?" — Jack shuts down her lascivious smirk with a quick, "They'll be no knowing here."
And there isn't. Dead Man's Chest has blockbuster fish to fry, which means nonstop action, including a cannibal cookout (Jack is garlanded with a necklace of severed toes), narrow escapes, cliff dangling, duels on a giant wheel, a fight for a harvested human heart and every trick the filmmakers could raid from Spielberg's Indiana Jones trilogy. Homage or ripoff? You be the judge. The important thing is that it works. And what works most devilishly is Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), the squid-faced captain of the Flying Dutchman who bargains for the souls of those he captures. Davy and his crew of the undead have lived underwater so long they look like something out of an aquarium. I don't have a clue how the computer wizards accomplished the visual miracles — just wait till you see the Kraken, a giant sea monster who sucks entire ships down into Davy's locker — but Nighy's performance as the buccaneer Jack calls "fish face" brims over with mirth and menace. With slimy tentacles wiggling around his head, Nighy blows away every other villain this summer. Not since Disney killed Bambi's mother (Nemo's too) has the studio Walt built upped the jolt ante so high on PG-13 entertainment. Kids may wet their pants, but so what? It's the triumphant rogue in Depp that keeps this pirate ship afloat and actually makes the third voyage (coming next summer) a trip worth booking.