Arrr, keelhaul the blaggards! The dreaded curse of the sequels hits home with a vengeance in ``Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," a noisy and lazy stopgap movie that goes absolutely nowhere and takes 2 1/2 hours to get there.
Where 2003 's ``Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl " was a happy surprise -- a theme-park movie invested with wit and genuine movie magic -- this go-round feels sodden almost from the first frame. Nearly all the players have returned: director Gore Verbinski and his screenwriting team; sigh-guy Orlando Bloom as noble Will Turner and Keira Knightley as the fetching Elizabeth Swann; and, as the scrofulous Captain Jack Sparrow, one Mr. John Depp, Esq.
All that's missing is a plot, amusing dialogue, comic timing, and a reason to exist. Presumably these will come in the third installment, already filmed and due in theaters next May. For now, the abruptness with which ``Dead Man's Chest" leaves audiences hanging borders on contempt.
The tattered story line sends first Will, then Elizabeth , out onto the briny to find Jack Sparrow. Threatened with execution by dastardly East India Trading Company head Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), Will is charged with bringing back a certain magic compass in the pirate's possession. Elizabeth just wants Will back.
What does Jack Sparrow want? To escape the clutches of Davy Jones himself, who sails the Flying Dutchman above and below the bounding main with a crew of the damned that includes Will's own pa (Stellan Skarsgard). First, though, Jack must find a key that leads to a buried chest that leads to . . . well, far be it from me to spoil one of the movie's few surprises. One senses, though, that the plans for the ``Pirates of the Caribbean" videogame were mistaken for the movie script at a crucial juncture.
Davy Jones is played by the wonderful character actor Bill Nighy (``Love Actually ," ``The Constant Gardener "), a curt Scottish accent hissing under a computer-generated ``mask" of octopus skin and squiggly tentacles. All the Flying Dutchman crew have morphed into humanoid sea beasts over the centuries, and much the best part of ``Dead Man's Chest" comes from grooving on the amazing character animation provided by Industrial Light and Magic and five other CG houses. It may be the first movie where the critters out-act the humans.
The Hammerhead Shark sailor, the Hermit Crab sailor, the old salt with a face like a lionfish: This is high-calorie summer spectacle, as eye-popping as it is intermittent. (It's also problematically scary for smaller children; in terms of all-around violence, gore, and fright factor, this may be one of the hardest PG-13s yet released. No nudity, though, since you know how that warps the kids.)
Depp was the first film's most special special effect, of course, and he reinvented the pirate cliché before our disbelieving eyes as a sort of drunken Douglas Fairbanks-style camp swashbuckler. (Keith Richards, who's slated to appear as Jack's father in the third film, is the acknowledged reference point, but Depp knows the roots go f arther back.) The star labors mightily here, and he gets what laughs he can, but after the 17th eye roll and stagger, it's obvious he's semaphoring it in.
The problem is that Verbinski and his writers haven't written scenes -- they've written ideas for scenes and then told Depp and the other actors to wing it. The dialogue sequences stall aimlessly 30 seconds in, and the jokes are groaners (``Where's that dog swimming to?" ``He saw a catfish"). When in doubt, the cast falls down. It doesn't help that there are too many characters to sensibly keep track of: In addition to the leads and the villains, there's Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg as two Mutt-and-Jeff sailors, Elizabeth's father (Jonathan Pryce) and the disgraced Norrington (Jack Davenport) from the first film, a voodoo queen played by Naomie Harris, and the crew of a British commercial vessel.
Every so often, the film sends in the Kraken, Davy Jones' s personal sea monster; again, the special effects here are remarkable and the din fearsome. When Verbinski ignores the actors and concentrates on comic action scenes, he's on safe ground. An extended chase on a cannibal island is a nice piece of clockwork knockabout, as is a bit with a runaway mill wheel later on. The sword duels, though, are mostly frantic waving and swishy sound effects -- where's Basil Rathbone when you need him? -- and the editing is surprisingly awkward for a major motion picture. These seas are choppier than they should be.
Will it matter? The preview audience I saw ``Dead Man's Chest" with sat stonily through most of the movie, laughed with relief when a solid gag came along, and walked out trying to convince themselves they'd had a good time and that the ridiculous ending -- here's your hat, see you next May! -- wasn't an insult after 150 minutes of shambolic big-budget vaudeville. The third ``Pirates" may come too late: With ``Dead Man's Chest," the franchise is back to the rickety amusement-park ride it started as.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.