'Pirates' chest is empty

'Dead Man's Chest' forgets what made Part 1 so good: Johnny Depp.

The surprise success of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" was due almost entirely to Johnny Depp's campy, vampy portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow. It was one of the most breathtakingly eccentric performances ever given in a big Hollywood franchise movie.

In the disappointing sequel, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," a strange thing has happened: Depp doesn't figure in a large part of the action. Instead, we are given interminable scenes featuring Captain Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his scurvy crew, as well as far too many interludes involving dewy lovers Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). Can it be that director Gore Verbinski and his screenwriters, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, don't understand the secret to their own success?

The film begins with Will and Elizabeth arrested on their wedding day for facilitating Jack's escape. The smarmy Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) offers them their freedom if Will can retrieve Jack's magic compass. Beckett represents the imperial bureaucracy – the not-so-brave world of new-style buccaneers – while Jack and his rummy cohorts are the vanishing breed.

I suppose there's a contemporary analogy being played out here: It has long been true in Hollywood that most of the risk-taking mavericks have been replaced by functionaries. The irony is that this message is being proffered in a movie that doesn't take very many chances of its own. It's a franchise movie – a product – that is pretending to be a lot hipper than it is.

Even Depp's performance is a bit of a letdown. He was so startling the first time around that, through no fault of his own, we can't possibly be as surprised by him now. The dreadlocks, braided beard, and eye shadow don't register with the same impact, and neither does his fey swagger and mincing valor. Drizzled with beads and amulets and whatnot, Jack is something of a walking tag sale, but Depp lets his costuming and makeup do too much of the work for him. He seems to be impersonating Jack instead of inhabiting him.

He's still a lot of fun to watch, though. (He has a particularly amusing escapade, modeled on "The Man Who Would Be King," as the reluctant god of an island of cannibals.) Much has been made of the fact that Depp based his portrayal on the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards (who is rumored to have a cameo as Jack's father in the third "Pirates" movie scheduled for release next summer). But the personality he most reminded me of was, of all people, Bob Hope, who specialized in playing wisecracking cowards who always scrammed when the going got tough.

Jack is a rebuke to the Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn school of heroism, and even though that school was wonderful in its heyday, it has long been in recess and it's a treat to see it skewered. Maybe Depp could be the next Superman and breathe some life back into that high-flying waxworks dummy? Or maybe in the sequel to this movie he will once again take charge. Too much of the current film is taken up with immense close-ups of Davy Jones, his head a mishmash of octopi tentacles, and Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), Will's father, whose face is encrusted by the sea bottom. The movie's gross-out effects are impressive but wearying. How apt that the director's name is Gore.

Even worse, in some ways, is the bland prettiness of Bloom and Knightley. Bloom has never impressed me as a star, and Knightley, who grew up as an actress in the intervening three years from the first film, is back in starlet mode.

If you sit out the endless end credits you'll see a quick visual joke, a coda. Or you can skip it and beat the traffic. Grade: B–

Rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence, including frightening images.

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