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Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest
Reviewed by Mark Finn, © 2006

Format: Movie
By:   Gore Verbinski (director)
Review Date:   July 07, 2006
Audience Rating:   PG-13
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

I am unapologetically a fan of pirate movies. That includes the otherwise-unwatchable Polanski movie Pirates and the otherwise-laughable Renny Harlan movie Cutthroat Island. I give them all a pass because I love the sword fights, the derring-do, the stunts, the picaresque romance, and all of that kind of thing. I may be tempted to lay the blame at the feet of Star Wars, when Princess Leia kisses Luke “for luck” just before they swing across the moat in the Death Star. I really can’t remember if that came before Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood in my own early programming or not. Regardless, there you have it. My secret shame, laid bare for the world to see.

Imagine my shock when Pirates of the Caribbean came out several years ago and I found everyone on the planet (for once) in agreement with me. I don’t quite know if it was the addition of the supernatural that made the movie work or not, but Gore Verbinski admitted that it’s not just a pirate movie, but every pirate movie. He hit all of the classic notes and kept the story engaging to newcomers.

Now it’s three years later, and I just got back from the midnight showing of Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest, and I gotta tell you, it’s better than the first one. Let me again apologize for what I’m about to do; it’s wrong, very wrong, to try and insert Star Wars into every genre trilogy as some sort of myth-barometer, but it can’t be helped. George Lucas himself shit all over the Jungian archetypes that Campbell employed, and in doing so gave us a quick and easy measuring stick by which we can judge other pop culture. That, in the end, may be Lucas’ sole legacy to pop culture. But I digress.

Pirates of the Caribbean is the new Star Wars. There, I said. Stone me if you like, but Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest is without a doubt the series’ Empire Strikes Back. Oh, sure, you can clearly see the basic archetypes in Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner (Luke), Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan (Leia), and Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow (Han Solo). But that’s just a simplification because we now unconsciously look for Han, Luke, and Leia in everything. The Black Pearl may serve the same obvious purpose as the Falcon, but who’s the Vader? The Empire? We may see them in the end.

The story is more complex than the first Pirates, hinging on the emotional swings of the characters. Jack is a little different because the story is darker. Turner and Swan are more serious because their personal tragedy has been yanked up a couple of notches. Everyone has something to lose, and no way to get it back.

This movie is meaner, spookier, scarier, and creepier than the first. It’s also more violent, more action-packed (no, really!), more stunt-obsessed, and more crafty. It was too much to take in all in one sitting. Squid-faced Davey Jones and the Flying Dutchman are outstanding bad guys, as is all of the sea-soaked crew. Top marks for inhuman pirate creation. They did the first movie’s skeletons one better — and I loved the skeletons.

There was also a conscious decision to tie in the snippets of the back story from the first movie into this film. It made for a very cohesive universe with very little exposition. Almost throw-away lines from the first film were given actual sub-plots in this movie. And one of them had a basis in historical fact. There’s even a mild political message in there. Film scholars will love this one for years, particularly anti-corporatists.

Where the movie fails is in the almost forced recycling of jokes from the first film. Some of the dialogue is inevitable, of course, but most of it comes off, despite the actors’ best efforts, as an unnecessary nod and wink in the audience’s direction. If you had a favorite line from the first movie, it’s guaranteed that it was cut-and-pasted into the second. I expected some of it, but not all of it. I had rather hoped the jokes would get spread out through the second and third movies, which were filmed together so that we won’t have to wait three years to see the cliffhanger resolved.

What, you didn’t think there would be a cliffhanger? Or a twist ending? Or surprise guests at the last second? Guess again. In fact, that was an admittedly fun part of watching this second outing; getting to spot all of the bits and pieces from the first movie like a demented “Where’s Waldo”.

Don’t let that keep you from seeing the film. There’s over three hours’ worth of stuff to cover, and plenty of outstanding visuals and jaw-dropping sword-fu to make this worth your time. Even if you don’t like it as much as I did (and you probably can’t), you will like it at least as much as the first film.

Mark "Mad Mickey" Finn is an editor-at-large for RevolutionSF and thinks that Robert E. Howard's pirate Black Vulmea would kick Captain Jack Sparrow's ass. And he can prove that theory with math.

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