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Yo Ho Hum

Despite thrills, "Pirates" sequel is cursed by writerly scalawags.


The cast of the first surprise hit, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003), has been dutifully reassembled, including, of course, Johnny Depp as the fey Captain Jack Sparrow. In the sequel, he's been pitted against the agents of the East India Company, controlled by the sinister Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), who runs his operation from an English manor adorned with a massive map of the world, making the company seem like a forerunner of SPECTRE in the James Bond movies. Having thwarted the nuptials of the romantic leads from "Black Pearl" (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley), Beckett sets in motion a hunt for a mysterious key and the chest it goes to, both of which are mysteriously linked to the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), here incarnated as half-octopus, half-man, with writhing tentacles where his whiskers ought to be.

The plot — a race for a magic thingamabob — is as gentle as a westerly breeze. So it's with increasing impatience that we watch scene after scene in which characters throw out dark hints about just what's in the chest and what powers its contents might bestow. Who cares? In Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," we never learn a thing about just what it is everyone is desperately trying to find, and the movie is the stronger for this omission. The writers of "Dead Man's Chest" have made the terrible mistake of supposing that its mostly teen audience will not be satisfied with the computer-enhanced derring-do unless they are assured, repeatedly and at length, that all the hubbub is in the service of something really, really important.

For the most part the actors comport themselves nimbly and try to toss off their wordier disquisitions with a minimum of ado. Depp, as the unlikeliest of pirates, is consistently entertaining as the louche Jack. (He has cited both Keith Richards and Pepe LePew as his models, but another likely source is Ralph Brown's 1987 performance in the cult classic "Withnail & I.") Keira Knightley, who made a rather too feral Elizabeth in last year's "Pride & Prejudice," is back in her element as the fiery Elizabeth Swann. As for Orlando Bloom, the unfit object of her tigerish affection, we are almost surprised every time he appears onscreen, because whenever he leaves, we almost immediately forget that he's in the picture at all.

Director Gore Verbinski is adept at integrating computer-generated effects into the live-action sequences. Scenes in which the Black Pearl attempts to fight off a massive monster of the deep suggest a maritime "Jurassic Park." Other highlights include Davy Jones's waterlogged crew, all of whom have taken on features of the aquatic creatures they spend their undersea time with, and a sword fight atop a spinning water wheel that has come unmoored from its casing. At moments, though, the sensory overload makes one long for simpler times, especially when Davy Jones' upper lip, in spite of all the surrounding tentacles, calls to mind Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion makeup.

Those seeking a self-contained movie experience should be warned that "Dead Man's Chest" was filmed in tandem with the next "Pirates" installment, and this year's episode does not even attempt to tie up the plot it so ponderously introduces. Compared with this movie, "The Two Towers" arrived in 2002 like a model of narrative closure. Oh, for the days when producers understood that the point of such entertainments is to get the audience in and out of the theater in less than two hours (previews included), glutted with action and without a thought in their heads! (PG-13) 150 min. *** S

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