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‘Dead Man’s Chest’ holds familiar treasures

Second ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film has many echoes of the first movie

Johnny Depp starring in a $150 million pirate movie based on a Disneyland ride? Surely the creators of “Pirates of the Caribbean” must have been joking.

When he signed on to do the movie four years ago, Depp was afflicted with a string of box-office failures. Pirate movies almost never do well at the box office, filmed theme-park rides were iffy projects (at the time), and movies shot “on the water” almost always run into weather setbacks.

For every Errol Flynn classic, there’s a disaster on the scale of “Cutthroat Island,” which cost $100 million and grossed about one-tenth of that. For every “Peter Pan,” there’s a deservedly forgotten “Yellowbeard” or “Swashbuckler.” For every “Treasure Island,” there’s a box-office bust as confused and foolish as Roman Polanski’s “Pirates.” Gene Kelly’s MGM musical, “The Pirate,” was such a flop that Cole Porter, who wrote the songs, called it “unspeakably wretched, the worst that money can buy.”

Nevertheless, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” defied all warning signs, surprising everyone (except perhaps its prescient producer, Jerry Bruckheimer) by grossing more than $650 million worldwide in the summer of 2003. It earned Depp his first Oscar nomination, won him a Screen Actors’ Guild prize for the year’s best actor, and gave him box-office clout for the first time.

Which means, of course, that “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” was inevitable. Not to mention “Pirates of the Caribbean 3,” which will be released next summer. Most members of the original cast were reunited for the sequels, and the writing-directing team is the same for all three films.

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The new “Pirates” is surely one of the most confident sequels ever created. If you liked the first one, screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott offer plenty more of the same —supernatural monsters, comic-relief pirates, romantic peril — but with a cliffhanger ending that won’t be resolved until next year.

On the other hand, if you thought the first one wore out its welcome with overdone special effects, repetitious action scenes and a two-and-a-half-hour running time, you may feel like you’re trapped in a rerun. The second “Pirates” is as long as the first, and it offers more than one spectacular run-in with a ferocious, ship-swallowing squid-like monster known as a kraken.

The director, Gore Verbinski, clearly assumes that everyone who watches “Dead Man’s Chest” not only saw “Curse of the Black Pearl” but studied it. Several of the better jokes are based on intimate knowledge of a film you might not have seen since 2003. You may need to refresh your memory via DVD.

Depp’s entrance as the trickster pirate, Capt. Jack Sparrow, is a grotesquely funny echo of his entrance in the first “Pirates.” He’s just got a smaller “boat” this time, and the oar he uses is part of a skeleton. Later, when Sparrow runs into the heroine, Elizabeth (Keira Keighley), his first instinct is to exclaim “hide the rum” — an allusion to her habit of burning barrels of his favorite drink.

The movie begins with Elizabeth, alone in the rain, as her wedding to Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is ruined. He’s been arrested and may be headed for the gallows. A fierce enemy, Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), is responsible, but he’s also willing to save Will and Elizabeth if they can retrieve Sparrow’s magic compass. Beckett even imagines a respectable future for Sparrow, whom he pities as part of “a dying breed who must find his place in the new world.”

Of course there’s a treasure hunt involving a key and a locked box, though it doesn’t include the usual treasure. But before he finds it, Sparrow is captured and nearly roasted by cannibals. Stellan Skarsgard turns up as Will’s long-lost father, and there’s a demented new character, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), whose face is covered with octopus tentacles — which he uses to play the organ on his ship. 

More than the first “Pirates,” this one is focused on shifting allegiances and identities. It’s not always easy to tell who’s switching sides (or why), especially when Elizabeth’s would-be boyfriend (Jack Davenport) abandons his stiff-upper-lip demeanor and Elizabeth comes on to Sparrow. As Beckett notes, “Loyalty is no longer the currency of the realm.”

Sparrow’s alliances, which involve a debt he owes to Davy, are full of surprises. So is Depp’s approach to the role, which includes more flouncing and foppishness than before. He’s often just on the edge of camp.

According to Depp, his performance is based on The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. Others have recognized traces of Pepe Le Pew, Boy George, Bugs Bunny and Marlon Brando’s eccentric Fletcher Christian in the 1962 version of “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Depp’s approach to the role is astonishingly different from anything he’s done before on film.

More typically, he has played relatively straight characters. He usually watches his co-stars win Oscars or nominations (Martin Landau in “Ed Wood,” Leonardo DiCaprio in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” Javier Bardem in “Before Night Falls”). His top-grossing movie before “Pirates” was “Sleepy Hollow,” which was more about art direction than acting.

Sparrow is a genuinely original recreation, yet there’s nothing selfish or grandstanding about Depp’s performance. He’s never more engaged than when he’s interacting with the other cast members: flirting with Knightley, dueling with Davenport and Bloom, debating with the cannibals, sharing a dreamy conversation with Skarsgard.

Pirate movies come in many forms. In the most popular ones, the pirates tend to play peripheral roles — the traitors who fail to transport the slaves in “Spartacus,” the barbarians who attack the Roman fleet in “Ben-Hur.” In this summer’s Spielberg/Zemeckis cartoon, “Monster House,” pirates turn up only on Halloween, when trick-or-treaters disguise themselves with skull-and-crossbones costumes.

The genius of the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” may be that it’s as much a horror movie as it is a pirate movie, with a touch of Indiana Jones thrown in. A sword fight on a runaway water wheel could have been an episode in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” while a couple of the monsters might have stepped out of the “Star Wars” cantina. Clearly, everything but the kitchen sink is fair game.