What helps Dead Man’s Chest stand out right out of the gate is that it never feels like a retread of its predecessor. It’s a film about consequences, whether that be the judgment that Will and Elizabeth face for their noble act of aiding a pirate at the end of Black Pearl, the effect that disgrace has had on former commodore James Norrington (Jack Davenport), or how Jack’s past dealings have come home to roost. Not to mention that the opening of the film, which sees rain pouring on a despondent Elizabeth’s abandoned wedding day as Beckett’s forces arrive, is a surprisingly powerful way of immediately getting that point across by subverting the idea of a happy ending that Black Pearl suggested its characters would have in its final moments.
In running with that idea, Dead Man’s Chest allows for its leads to reunite in a way that feels less like the band getting back together for another perfunctory adventure and more like one of logical circumstance, giving everyone something new to fight for (or run from) along the way. Backed into a corner, Jack’s selfishness comes more to the forefront, for instance, the pirate willing to doom Will to servitude on Jones’ ship to save his own skin, something that reunites Will with his long-lost father “Bootstrap” Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and motivates the young man to find the chest and free him. Norrington puts the blame of all his misfortune on Sparrow (and Will) and sees the heart as a way to reclaim his honor should he return it to Beckett. Even Jonathan Pryce’s Governor Swann, who spent most of his time in the first film simply being a foppish finger waver, finds himself willing to put his life and standing on the line if it means saving his daughter from the hangman’s noose.
In essence, none of the major returning players are simply going through the motions or repeating their arcs from the first film, and that eager willingness to shake things up feels clear in the performances, too, as the actors are having a blast pushing their characters into new ground, with Davenport in particular having fun playing up the boozy, disgruntled and opportunistic side of Norrington. Even the supporting cast, like Kevin McNally’s Gibbs or Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook’s Pintel and Ragetti, get moments to shine, the latter duo in particular overcoming redundancy by virtue of their charisma and the sheer chemistry they have with one another.
Even better, the enthusiasm of the veteran cast is matched by the newcomers, whether that be Hollander’s smarmy, oily turn as Beckett, Naomie Harris’ mystical, unusual Tia Dalma, or Nighy’s Davy Jones. It takes a little over an hour before Jones shows up in the film, but what an entrance it is, and Nighy delivers a villain that steals every scene he’s in. It’s an amazing performance on his part, from every quirky lip pop to slick line delivery, and the work by ILM that augments Nighy’s efforts to fully bring the character to life has aged unbelievably well.
At World’s End explores the character’s backstory a bit more, too, but it’s a testament to the writing and Nighy’s work here that the villain works so well anyway despite only appearing in the back half of the film, with just enough hints at his lost humanity sprinkled throughout to make him compelling without forgetting the fact that he relishes in being evil, such as when he forces Bill Turner to whip his own son.
One argument against Jones’ inclusion in the movie, however, is that his presence – along with the crew of the Flying Dutchman – marks the series’ turn into supernatural waters, something that robs the franchise of the more grounded feeling of its predecessor, as though Black Pearl didn’t feature a literal skeleton crew of pirates. It’s a fair complaint for anyone who simply wanted a straightforward pirate movie, but it works for Dead Man’s Chest, the supernatural element surrounding the character adding flavor to the film rather than overwhelming it, balanced just as nicely with the overall tone as the effects of the Aztec curse did the first time around.