Thursday, August 17, 2006

All at sea: review of Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead man's chest

If you only see one film this year, you're lucky. I've seen three already, and one of them was King Kong, and another was Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead man's chest, which was better, and even slightly shorter (a mere 150 minutes). Like King Kong, it could have been a lot shorter still. A swordfight inside a waterwheel careering down a hill is amusing for 30 seconds, and mildly impressive for a further minute, and just boring after that. Also like King Kong, there is an extended sequence featuring cannibalistic savages whose language is not translated. This seems an interesting cultural phenomenon: it has been a hundred years or so since such a portrayal has been acceptable: the last time we saw people with bones through their noses, they were appearing alongside Sting being credited with environmental and spiritual wisdom beyond the ken of modern man. They are, in language and dress, clearly 'other' to both European whites and African blacks: one has to wonder whether this straightforward unapologetic demonisation reflects geopolitical nightmares about the Yellow Economic Peril.

Morally, the Pirates film wriggles, attempting to highlight the evil globalisation of (British) (in) justice and economic exploitation to define one set of real baddies. Nice of that little homespun local outfit the Walt Disney Corporation to highlight this.

There are good sequences in the film, but each is too long, and there are far too many: the proliferation of plot twists is not so much confusing as irritating. There is something of the BB7 effect in seeing the return of every major character from the first film, even the dead ones. Can't we move on? The core plot is potentially interesting, an elaboration of a complex mythology around the themes of Davy Jones' Locker and the Flying Dutchman; it's a shame this wasn't more central.

It was also welcome to have both a relatively complex moral stance (few of the characters are straightforwardly good all the time) and an absence of the emotional bullying that is usually part of a blockbuster, where the music forces you to react in a certain way.

The acting is ok, too, although there are a range of styles, from Johnny Depp, who keeps it turned up to 11 almost all the time, Bill Nighy, whose humanity shows through his faceful of tentacles, and Keira Knightley who holds the film's interest for much of its length. When she's not speaking, she's fine, but unfortunately when she is, she seems out of place. Her quiet delivery might be all right in a period film, but here she sounds bored when talking and petulant when shouting.

All in all, I could forgive the film were it not for the last half hour which is an extended set-up for Pirates 3; I recognised this as soon as it happened, since it effectively destroyed any climax to the narrative, the same fault that crippled Back to the Future 2.

Overall: it's no King Kong, but still.

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