Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Before nestling your butt into a theater seat for the two-and-a-half hour epic that is 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest,' it is important to remember that all movies can't be all things to all people. What I mean is that if you go into this sequel to 2003's 'Curse of the Black Pearl' expecting to see something with the gritty naturalism of say 'The Godfather Part II' or the emotional resonance of 'Schindler's List,' you're probably going to be disappointed. This may sound glaringly obvious, but it's a point that movie critics often bury beneath a steaming pile of their own pretentiousness.

If, on the other hand, you go into 'Dead Man's Chest' expecting a movie based on a Disney theme-park ride, you're going to get exactly what you bartered for: a boatload of swashbuckling action, eyeball-confounding special effects and Johnny Depp hamming it up as the same glam-rock pirate you loved in his maiden movie voyage.

The film finds lovers Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) once again royally screwed over (literally) in their attempt to live happily ever after. For their role in freeing the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), Her Majesty's East India Trading Company will stretch Will and Elizabeth by the neck -- if they don't get their hands on Jack's seemingly broken and worthless compass. Meanwhile, Captain Jack is up to his eyeliner in debt to the octopus-faced overlord of the ocean,Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). With Davy and his crew of fish-and-barnacle-headed minions -- not to mention a gargantuan sea monster known as the Kraken -- in hot pursuit, Jack must find some leverage (in this case, a legendary chest that contains Jones' still-beating heart) or become Davy Jones' servant for the remainder of all time. His only aid in finding said locker: the same compass Will and Elizabeth must procure to save their hides. Ah, suddenly the plot thickens. Basically, he who controls the chest, controls Davy Jones -- and ergo controls the seas. OK, so it ain't Shakespeare -- but it does make for a grand conflict pitting Will and Elizabeth against Jack, Davy Jones and the East India Trading Company.

Enough about the plot, though. It's tertiary to the action and, more importantly, the characters. It's no secret that Jerry Bruckheimer pumped a whole lot of Aztec gold into 'Dead Man's Chest' and next summer's imminent sequel -- and this investment pays huge dividends in spectacle. The most eye-catching example of cash put to good use is an extended three-man sword fight that ranges from beach to jungle to tumbling water wheel. The production costs on that scene alone would have made Richard Branson cringe.

Then there's the special effects. Even with gooey tentacles for a face, Davy Jones still conveys emotions -- anger mostly, but also mischief. And you can even see Billy Nighy's -- you may remember him as aging rock star Billy Mack in 'Love Actually' -- signature facial expressions through the serpentine mass of greyish flesh. And Jones' crew of fish-headed, barnacle-goitered baddies put the skeletons of the original 'Pirates' to shame. The Kraken, on the other hand, could use a little work. It kind of calls to mind the Sarlac Pit from 'Return of the Jedi,' only faker.

But all of this means nothing if the character development isn't there. Fortunately, it is. Depp is once again at the top of his game, channeling Keith Richards with a cornucopia of head lilts, devious smirks and limp-wristed gestures. He makes even the simple act of running away from a horde of cannibals funnier than anything you'll see in most straight-up comedies. And although by the end of the first movie we're made to believe that we understand Jack -- "he's a pirate AND a good man" -- this doesn't necessarily mean that his actions have become any more predictable, or any less self-serving. His character arc is a long way from complete.

As for Knightley and Bloom, one of my only complaints about the first 'Pirates' is that the romance between these two crazy good-looking kids felt a bit forced. But their love has aged well in the sequel -- and the movie is richer for it. Once again, Bloom's Will is a bastion of fidelity and unconditional resolve, concerned with one thing and one thing only: making the world safe for Elizabeth, the girl of his dreams. Playing the much less flashy foil to Depp's swashbuckling scene-stealer is a thankless role, but a necessary one. And Bloom does it with enough gusto and charisma that when Will and Jack find themselves at odds, it's often hard to decide for whom to root -- especially when it's the affections of Elizabeth that are on the line.

Speaking of Knightley's Elizabeth, she gets a chance to don a pirate costume and kick some ass in this movie, and let me just say this: She can trash talk and sword fight with the best of them. More importantly, this time around she is ripe -- almost over-ripe -- for the marrying and everything that goes along with it (yes, I do mean the sex), and this leads her to some conflicted feelings about a certain man with a prediliction for piracy and eye makeup. So as Will and Elizabeth vie with Jack for possession of Davy Jones' disembodied heart, there are emotions and allegiances lurking below the surface that just might prove more dangerous than the Kraken. And that's why I can't wait to see 'Pirates of the Caribbean 3.'

Get 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest' showtimes and tickets

See photos of Keira Knightley from the London premiere

categories Features, Cinematical