As you enjoy fireworks and booze and the rhythmic slap-slap of bellies in cabanas, allow us to do our part to bring the slightly rudderless ship known as The Black Pearl into port a little early. You saw Devin’s glowing review, and in the recent spirit of things here’s our contrasting tag team variant or as I like to call it, the correct take.

Enjoy. The participants are myself (birthday boy and all around swamp dweller), Andrew Sweeney (techie by day and budding director by night), Stephen Murphy (poor man’s Jason Statham by day and just poor man by night), and Russ Fischer (body horror come to freakishlife).

Russ Fischer: It’s amazing that for the summer of 2006, the most anticipated film might not feature the world’s most recognizable comic book character, but a trio of heroes and scoundrels based on a theme park ride. Thanks in huge part to good will generated by Johnny Depp’s charismatic, instantly memorable performance in the original, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is the top-shelf popcorn flick of the summer. It bursts at the seams with material: Depp being Depp, Bill Nighy with an invertebrate face, and more big action setpieces than we’ve seen since Jackie Chan stopped directing fun movies.

All that, and a goddamn Kraken.

But don’t let the super-fancy new Disney logo fool you into thinking this is some lightweight confection. This is a darker and slightly crazier film than the first. It rides on our familiarity with Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann and Captain Jack Sparrow, but not on summer movie convention. Remember the old 110-minute adventure film that left you breathless and wanting more? This isn’t necessarily it. Dead Man’s Chest is prog rock, not pop music. It winds and digresses, seemingly entertaining every indulgence the creative minds of Verbinksi, Bruckheimer, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio could envision. Every criticism that could be brought against the original film applies this time, too. In 2003, the mixture was heady enough that I was willing to forgive the excesses of Curse of the Black Pearl‘s inflated running time. This year… maybe not.

Stephen Murphy: I somewhat agree. Everything that made the original so enjoyable, such as the tongue-in-cheek bravado and the excessive sword fights are all replicated here, albeit to the max. Part of the beauty of Curse of the Black Pearl was the relative newness in seeing a slightly over the top pirate film that didn’t take itself too seriously. Here, though, some of that newness has worn off and at times it feels like certain scenes are thrown in just to satisfy the “event quota”. Some of these scenes I felt actually detracted from the overall story. For instance, the entire ‘cannibal’ sequence in the first half could have been dropped altogether and saved about 30 minutes of running time in the meantime. It is at times overly silly and adds nothing to the characters growth, nor the eventual story in general.

Having said that it is still a very good movie, if overlong. All of the actors reprise their roles with a more perceived vigor and confidence that really helps propel the action along. I felt that Orlando Bloom equipped himself better here than he did in the first one, often times exhibiting a swashbuckling Errol Flynn quality that while seemed forced in Pearl, feels more natural here for whatever reason.

Not as good as the first one, but still better than most blockbuster sequels by far.

Nick Nunziata: The benefit of the first film was of course that it had no right being good, even with legitimate talent like Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, and skeletons. Bruckheimer always grabs the choice talent, but rarely does it become something special. The first film was magical. A true classic, especially as a meaty summer film. This film has all the bells and whistles money can buy, and every penny is seemingly onscreen. This is a spectacle with CGI and high-end set pieces around every cove. When something thinks it has you stunned with its quality and execution, it’s replaced by something even bigger and prettier. The film is as bloated as a film critic, though, and it takes a lot of effort to keep it somewhat reeled in. After an oddly shaky and rather cool start the characters come back into flow as expected once Captain Jack Sparrow enters the fold. Johnny Depp is still a pleasure to watch, though he’s only at his best when given a really fun comedic action bit like one in the first half involving a bamboo shoot and a bunch of fruit [which happens in the segment Steve mentioned being extraneous]. The character of the scoundrel is always great until they’re shoehorned into being more and Jack’s semi-romantic subplot rings hollow in this film. A scoundrel’s only as good as his straight men and while Bloom does deliver a better performance he still is rather bland. Keira Knightley becomes the true protagonist here, which is a surprise since she spends the film’s early moments in the pokey. She’s convincing in the role, but the character just isn’t filled with enough juice and charisma to make it work. Because there’s no real center to the film for any stretch of time we’re inundated with the silly banter of MacKenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg as well as a host of other characters. It’s a lot to take in.

Andrew Sweeney: The “host” of other characters is a bit of an understatement. There are two new primary villains in part two, each with their own lieutenant. There are two new allies that don’t do a great deal in this installment (Actually, that’s not true. One of the allies fights with Captain Jack and Will in a giant wheel.) Finally, there are a few new groups of humans to help confuse the plot further. While I have to question the logic of introducing so many new characters into the latter part of the second act of a trilogy, but I can’t question the cast that plays them. Bill Nighy is this volume’s Barbossa in Davy Jones, the octopussed sea captain. The startling thing to me is how much Davy Jones looks like Bill Nighy, how well his mannerisms come through then tentacles and octopus puss. Nighy plays a slightly different pirate-of-ill-repute than Geoffery Rush, more confident in his dominion of the seas. Davy is a legend to sailors, offering those he takes to the deep a fool’s bargain: Sail with him as crew or face the afterlife. Oh, and you turn into a fish if you sail with him long enough. Naomie Harris comes in as Jack’s last resort, a voodoo priestess who might hold the key to Jack’s final escape from Davy Jones and his crackin’ octopus.

But half the fun in a movie like this is in the pursuit. My biggest gripe with Dead Man’s Chest is that the set-pieces and action sequences overshadow the central story so heavily. I can remember with great clarity the rolling-wheel sword fight, but I couldn’t readily tell you what happens after Will finds Jack and the two set off to the land of the cannibals. There are gaps in my memory where bits of story should be, covered by some excellent CGI work. The CGI is used to great effect, without question, but it feels like the story doesn’t equal up to the technical skill behind it.

Russ Fischer: In the movie’s defense, once that story’s laid out, it’s pretty simple. Davy Jones has something that everyone else wants. The complication is that at least one of those people isn’t well defined: the menacing Dutch East India Company officer who must have a name, but I have no idea what it is. His motivations, and those of a couple other characters, are left to be picked up in the third movie, which apparently will be the Return of the Jedi to this movie’s Empire Strikes Back. Though I doubt the Dutch East India Company will go down like the Empire.

The middle of the film, in which the plot finally comes together, really cooks. I love every bit on Davy Jones’ ship, because the designs are so intricate and fun to watch. Sure, Jones and his crew are technically not much different from what we had last time: grimly determined leader, basically unkillable henchmen, yo ho ho, bottle of rum, yadda yadda. But there’s more distinction among his men, and as Sweeney said, Nighy and the CGI hovering around his face are both fantastic. Nighy’s are the best tentacles I’ve seen since I Urotsukidoji‘d my way through a case of Kleenex back in college. When his fishy henchmen and our heroic trio finally make their way to the island where Jones’ booty is stashed, the movie shows that an extended series of setpieces and a plot can live nicely together. There’s a good hour of stuff in the middle that’s really great. If only the first act wasn’t so cold and the end was a stronger send-off.

But enough about all that. I’m handing this off to Nunziata, and he’d better talk about the Sarlacc…I mean, the Kraken.

Nick Nunziata: The Kraken is pretty cool. I mean, we’ve seen tentacles attack ships and people a lot in the CGI era, from Hellboy to Deep Rising to The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s not really a new trick. The tentacles here are very well rendered but it’s more of the same in terms of how they interact with their adversaries. My main gripe, and it’s one I thought I wouldn’t have because this film seemed the perfect grounds for it, was that we didn’t get to see much more than the tentacles. As a huge fan of hero shots of these creatures of lore [especially the Kraken, whom anyone close to me knows is dear to my heart] one of the iconic images we’re treated to is one of a beast mostly out of the water really giving the business to a ship. Other than a quick taste late in the film of the creature’s asshole mouth, it never escalates enough to render the Kraken as anything more than a force of nature in Davy Jones’ arsenal. As an advocate for Kraken rights, I feel the creature could have been given a little more to do, and is it too much to ask if one requests more than a fleeting underwater glimpse. How’s about a nice shot of that sucker on the prowl at sea’s bottom? Perhaps a shot of it whirling its way through the waves en route to the Black Pearl would have been a nice addition? It was cool, but nothing more than a device.

There was never a doubt in my mind that this is a robust franchise in waiting. Swashbuckling and high adventure never dies and though it gets harder to show us something new, you find the characters and situations that work and let them carry you. That’s how I feel about this series. I’m sold. The problem is that there isn’t much they can do in terms of freshness, so it’s all about the characters. This film has so many characters that it really does feel more like a theme park ride than the last. Look how many folks from the original we have! Look at how we’ve upped the ante! Look at how none of them die! It gets a little old when everyone in a film is pretty much unkillable [as Russ said in regards to the Davy Jones’ crew]. It begins to feel on rails.

Andrew Sweeney: I think Nick’s nailed the biggest hurdle that the last installment has to deal with, and that’s keeping the audience interested and invested in a story that’s been told (arguably) twice now. High adventure is perfect, but it has to be engaging and enough to leave the audience wanting more. There are elements of this story that I’m really dialed into, but I can’t help thinking that these elements aren’t where the filmmakers would have my interest. The relationship between Jack and the voodoo priestess (Naomie Harris) is one of these. Jack seems terribly reluctant to go see her, and she’s Jack’s equal in terms of power and confidence. I’m also a fan of the disgraced commodore, coming back to join the crew of the Black Pearl. It comes back to what Nick said, these are interesting characters that move the story along.

Ultimately, the pieces are in play for the big denouement. Dead Man’s Chest is excellent at setup, but there are at least six or seven payoffs that the third flick will be expected to nail down. In that regard, I’ll give it the Empire title. My question for the third is, with so many details to clean up, will it be able to stand on its own, or be relegated to a continuation of the second film? I don’t think that designation is positive or negative, but it’s been a long while since we saw a sequel of a serial-style film that wasn’t wholly dependent on its predecessor.

Russ Fischer: There will definitely be payoff in the third film — in fact, if Jack Sparrow lives through it, I’ll be really surprised. I’m not sure I’ll care either way, though, because Jack Sparrow has lost some of his appeal. My biggest problem with this film, and what makes it feel very different from the first, is that Depp wasn’t pulling me along for the whole ride. In that middle section I really enjoyed his performance, which was almost as effortless as in the original. But elsewhere he feels like Depp playing Depp playing Jack Sparrow. There’s a level of self-consciousness and parody that he crosses more than a few times. That’s part of what makes the already watery opening and cannibal sequence hard to swallow, and also part of the reason I didn’t leave the theater pumped to see more.

(A couple of days pass while we wait for Murphy to chime in again. And then…)

Stephen Murphy: That cry you hear is of my thunder being stolen. Back from the land of oblivion, all I can really do at this point (that hasn’t already been expunged above) is to back further enhance certain points.

A problem that I have with this film is that the filmmakers felt the need to throw (with 1 or 2 minor exceptions) every character from the first film into this one. You think the Star Wars universe is small – what with everyone knowing everyone and showing up all over the place? Dead Man’s Chest is almost identical in that regard to the tainted elder franchise, even throwing in the dog with the keys for goodness sake! Now I usually don’t have a problem bringing back memorable characters, but with Pirates there are about 3 billion. I feel like, for the service of the extreme running time and the boggy storyline, they could have dropped about 40 characters, streamlined the plot and delivered a better, more concise film.

Russ is correct by saying that while Depp is still good in this film, you get the feeling he’s doing an imitation of his previous performance, rather than exploring new facets of the character. Of course, that could be more the writers fault for not giving him anything really new to do, but he appears to be more neutral in this film rather than the driving force (which is now more of Bloom’s role).

Nick Nunziata: Not to be confused with Yngwie Malmsteen’s Driving Force. I guess the main thing that keeps this from being anything more than a fun time killer is that there’s not as much passion as I’d hoped there’d be. Many folks looked to this as the savior of the summer and that really has nothing to do with the product itself. Expectations are just that. With the sheer wattage onscreen and behind the lens [I love me some Gore Verbinski], it should have been at least a nice sequel. It’s not this series’ Empire to me in any sense. It’s not this series’ The Phantom Menace. It’s more like this series’ Beverly Hills Cop 2. It’s bigger, familiar, not as good. I like it though, and the Beverly Hills Cop series is obviously the best thing since science so I won’t even waste the text.

I almost wish that they’d just had agreed to do one sequel and not pulled the kitchen sink out. This shit ain’t rocket science. It’s film. It’s more important than rocket science. If #3 doesn’t totally kick me in the ass it’s just another franchise that got too big for its leather bracers.

Russ Fischer: First: when I mention Empire in relation to this movie, I’m not talking about quality, just structure.

Nick said something the other night that sums it up: the more I think about this movie, the less I like it. Between the lackluster fluff, the self-parodying Sparrow and an inability to distinguish itself from the first film, I’ve only got the mildest appreciation for this sequel. Yeah, there’s a good chunk of stuff I enjoyed in the middle, but this flick does little to motivate me like the first one did. When I walked out of Curse of the Black Pearl, I’d been transformed into a missionary for a film no one had any faith in. I can’t muster the same spirit this time, and it might take a press gang to get me on board for number three.

Stephen Murphy: So it appears we all agree that the 3rd film has to be a lot more concise than this rambling, cluttered installment. Still, I get the feeling that #3 is going to be absolutely huge, with characters dipping in and out of scenes without offering much (if anything) to the central story – you know, much like Dead Man’s.

However, for me I don’t think anything worse of this picture than I did when I stepped out of the theatre. As a film, it’s just there. It’s this gigantic, bloated summer movie that tries so desperately to out do its predecessor, that it misses the mark by a fairly wide margin. While I enjoyed several aspects of it, I came away feeling tired of the enormity of the whole thing, along with the feeling that the filmmakers didn’t really know what to do with all of the resources they had. It seems like they just threw everything into the pot, along with 8 trillion special effects, and hoped for the best.

Well, if this is a sign of things to come for the Pirates franchise, then #3 will find me rather indifferent towards it. Because then it will be painfully clear that Curse of the Black Pearl was a happy accident, and not the standard.

Russ Fischer – 6.5 out of 10

Nick Nunziata – 6.9 out of 10

Stephen Murphy – 6.4 out of 10

Andrew Sweeney – 6.5 out of 10