Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

In the history of.. well, the world, only three movies have ever made a billion dollars at the box-office worldwide, and Orlando Bloom has starred in two of them. He wasn't in 'Titanic', the behemoth of a movie that's closer to the two billion mark (give or take a hundred million or so..) but he was in 'Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' and the only other billion dollar baby in existence: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest'.

However, the Orlando Bloom connection isn't the only thing that Dead Man's Chest has in common with 'The Return of The King'. Both are big-budget fantasy stories involving quests, heroes, villains and a collection of cinematic special effects set-pieces that will quite literally make your jaw drop. The similarity possibly ends there however, as the characters in Dead Man's Chest are altoghether more ambiguous than their peers from the LOTR franchise. In particular, Pirates has a trump character that simply does not exist in the Lord of the Rings universe, a certain Cap'n Jack Sparrow, played with the idiosyncratic verve you would expect from Johnny Depp.

In terms of his relationship with Hollywood, Johnny Depp is something of an oddity. Somehow, he has managed to be a part of an oeuvre of work which consistently receives critical acclaim, and generally does well as the box-office. However, much of his output would be considered off the beaten track as far as someone like, say Jerry Bruckheimer would be concerned. Yet movies like 'Edward Scissorhands', 'Donnie Brasco', 'Sleepy Hollow', and 'Blow' are just some examples of big box-office successes that Depp improved with his presence early in his career. These successes have allowed Depp a certain amount of professional freedom to balance his box-office heavy-hitters with more 'difficult' work that other more risk-averse actors would have baulked at. Movies such as 'Ed Wood', 'Dead Man', 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' and 'Before Night Falls' are not the fare of your average A-lister, but these are films that demonstrate Depp's maturity, and are an indication that he plies his trade with an eye on improving and developing as an actor.

His working relationship with Tim Burton is arguably the most productive of his career, Pirates of the Caribbean notwithstanding. With four critically acclaimed hit movies already under their belts, and another in the pipeline (2007 will see the release of 'Sweeney Todd', with Depp starring alongside Sacha Baron Cohen) they seem to bring out the best in each other.

Sleepy Hollow is a good place to start before talking about Depp's ubiquitous character in Pirates of the Caribbean: Jack Sparrow. In Sleepy Hollow, Depp portrayed his character with an English accent, and managed to do something Hollywood actors rarely do with accents, he pulled it off. (Lets forget about his Irish accent in 'Chocolat' for a moment!). His fondness for English comedies such as 'The Fast Show' (he even had a cameo in a scene alongside the slimy tailors) has endeared him to many this side of the water, and the influence of this sense of humour is another ingredient in the makeup of Cap'n Sparrow. The moment of inspiration, which may or may not be accredited to Depp, was to play Sparrow as Keith Richards... and this is essentially the DNA of Sparrow.

Although I was a big fan of the Lord of the Rings movies, there is nothing in that trilogy quite so comically entertaining as Jack Sparrow. His slurred words belie an extremely duplicitous mind (he's a pirate after all) but it's his mannerisms, including an effeminate mincing run and various over-staged reactions to remarks and plot developments, that really make the character. If Depp isn't enjoying himself as Jack Sparrow, then he's an even better actor than he appears, because it really comes across on screen.

Without a good script however, the Pirates movies would really just be the Jack Sparrow show. In the case of Dead Man's Chest, the script again possibly has a lot in common with Return of the King in that it is trying to cram in an awful lot of plot around the spectacular set-pieces, and at times this sheer volume of developments threatens to overload the movie. However, the dialogue is great, and even though it is principally a driver of the action, it is generally pretty smart and witty.

Aside from Jack Sparrow, the other two main leads are Keira Knightley and of course the two-billion-dollar-man himself, Orlando Bloom. These two characters aren't anywhere near as interesting as Sparrow, but they are slightly more unpredictable than you might give them credit for. They never fully trust Sparrow, even if they have a strong bond with the man, and the dynamic between the three is interesting enough, even though they don't actually share a huge amount of screen time all together.

More interesting than either Knightley or Bloom's characters is the baddie of the piece, a certain Davy Jones. An unrecognizale Bill Nighy plays a character resembling a modern updating of Squid-Head from the early Star Wars movies. His CGI costume is expertly rendered however, and he is allowed to act despite certain constraints, such as the lack of a nose or eyebrows for example. But Nighy's dialogue is excellent, his character is properly evil, and he manages to be credible enough as an ominous foe, and someone even the likes of Jack Sparrow would fear.

The special effects on display in Dead Man's Chest are properly breathtaking at times. Day Jones' crew are almost all CGI-rendered, but this is a million miles from Jar-Jar Binks, you'll be glad to hear. Also, the set-pieces involving the sea monster are large-scale disaster-movie awesome in their sheer scope.

In effect, Dead Man's Chest, much like 'Curse of the Black Pearl', is one of those movies that is just so damn likeable, that you can't help but enjoy it. The action is fast-moving and at times breath-taking, the characters are well-drawn - both heroes and villains - and the sense of humour is engaging enough to keep you listening to the dialogue, and wondering what will happen next.

I've compared this one to The Return of The King, but perhaps a more valid comparison would be with the Indiana Jones movies (my favourite of those: 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'). These movies are what Michael Palin might call 'ripping yarns'. You watch them to be entertained and that is exactly what they do.

So, although his collaboration with Tim Burton has perhaps a body of work that has brought Depp to the hollywood A-List, it is rather unfeasibly, with Jerry Bruckheimer that Depp has entered the next level. The third Pirates movie has a lot to live up to, but I think it has every chance of being another billion-dollar-movie. After enjoying Dead Man's Chest so much, I think I'll treat myself to seeing 'Pirates of the Caribbean at World's End' in the cinemas when it's released next year. If you haven't seen 'Dead Man's Chest' yet, I can heartily recommend it as a quality option for a DVD night, and I think you'd be hard pushed to find someone who wouldn't think likewise.

The Verdict: Quality entertainment with powderkegs full of crash bang wallop, and more than a few laughs. All in all, a ripping yarn.
The Rating: 8/10

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