Who would have guessed that the person in the Pirates of the Caribbean credits who would eventually come to mean the most to me would be … Mackenzie Crook?

But it’s true. In recent years, I have watched the TV series Detectorists again and again, delighted and moved by Crook’s extraordinary talents as a writer, director, and actor. He’s given us one of the most human television series I’ve ever seen. Detectorists is poetic, quietly funny, and full of perfectly cast actors crafting unforgettable characters.

Before that, I only knew him as “the skinny guy with the big eyes” from Gore Verbinski’s adventures at sea. And I quit paying attention to the Pirates movies after the third one which, overcrowded and overstocked with cargo, sank like a ship in a storm.

I was sad to see this franchise, which had a strong start and an even stronger second episode, go to pieces. I still think Dead Man’s Chest is one of the most wildly entertaining adventure movies ever made, and an exhibition of brilliant fantasy world-building.

Early buzz about the second Pirates film worried me. I remember being as unexpectedly dismayed by the reviews for the film as I was unexpectedly delighted by the film itself. I snarled about that right here at Looking Closer, grateful to have support from the ever-reliable Steven D. Greydanus.

But then things took a turn for the better, with several critics appreciating Verbinski’s bold vision. I noted that as well.

I chronicled the reviews from Christian media outlets at Christianity Today, including these:

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says Dead Man’s Chest is “the same sort of fun thrill ride that used to be the norm during the summer movie season,” and that the filmmakers “deserve praise for making an old-fashioned popcorn movie that knows how to entertain. Audiences may have been doubtful of the first movie, and perhaps a little skeptical of this one, but you can bet they’ll be clamoring for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End come May 2007.”

He adds a caution: “Like The Empire Strikes Back, this second chapter is considerably darker than its predecessor, though not as much as, say, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) raves that the movie offers “most of what you’d expect: an even more convoluted plot, even more eye-popping special effects and makeup, and an even more powerful supernatural nautical antagonist. … [T]he filmmakers have let their imaginations run wild, taking chances, striving to outdo themselves on every level. It’s an approach that can yield self-indulgent, bloated excess—or brilliance.” He concludes that this is an example of the latter, calling it “one of the most memorably entertaining popcorn flicks in memory.”

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, “For a sequel, the new movie matches—if not tops—the original as first-rate popcorn entertainment with all the right ingredients: action-adventure, spectacle, screwball comedy and a bit of romance.”

Taking a different tone, Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) opens fire on Captain Jack’s ship. “I never thought the words swashbuckling and tedious could ever describe the same thing, yet that’s the rare combination found in [Dead Man’s Chest].”

And Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says the movie “goes on much too long, then makes no effort to provide a satisfying ending.” He adds that it “includes heavy doses of the macabre that will leave some viewers more disgusted than amused.” But he concludes that the film “has a cartoonish quality that leavens even its darkest moments, and it includes a couple of bang-up sequences that remind us of how summer-movie thrills can delight with their lunacy and inspiration.”

And then, a week later…

Josh Hurst (Reveal) calls it “the most exhilarating and memorable big-screen adventure this side of The Fellowship of the Ring. There are elaborate set pieces; action sequences you won’t believe; mystery upon mystery and secret upon secret; special effects and pyrotechnics that raise the bar for action movies everywhere; a thrilling sCcore that ranks among the most distinctive since Raiders of the Lost Ark; and more spirited adventure than a whole galleon of amusement park rides. It’s also riotously funny.”

At Looking Closer, I posted this lengthy blast of enthusiasm…

In a year when summer blockbusters have proven disappointing at best, disposable and joyless at worst, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest arrives like an emergency delivery of fun. And apparently it’s more fun than some people can absorb in one sitting, judging from early negative reviews. Bursting at the seams with adventure, chase-scenes, comedy, and monsters so fantastic that Peter Jackson’s gonna turn green with envy, it’s making this moviegoer shout a hearty yo-ho-hallelujah.

Director Gore Verbinski and his cast know what they’re here to do, and what they’re not here to do. They’re not here for some kind of ponderous action movie with timely and relevant social commentary. They’re not here to indulge in any kind of angst. Leave that to someone else. Somebody somewhere needs to step up and deliver the kind of high-spirited fun that justifies the existence of popcorn, that reminds us that the alphabet of summertime moviegoing does not begin with “A for Angst,” but rather “A for Adventure.” These seafaring madmen are here to throw back big mugs of rum, put on elaborate costumes, slather on layers of makeup, and party until they drop. They’re ready to unleash action sequences so masterfully choreographed that Rube Goldberg would stand up and cheer.

And having suffered through the frenzied flop of X-Men: The Last Stand and the burdensome solemnity and lifeless dialogue of Superman Returns, I say, “Count me in!”

Warning: If you want to enjoy this film to the fullest, avoid other reviews that will contain spoilers, and don’t read the cast listing. You’ll thank me when those delightful surprises arrive in the way they were intended.

*   *   *

Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was surprising because it turned what was basically a big screen marketing tool for an antique Disney amusement park ride into a memorable adventure film, and gave Johnny Depp his defining role.

The sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is even more surprising. It gives us much, much more of everything that worked in the first film, and somehow stuffs in all kinds of new surprises, making it one of the most hilarious,  imaginative, and relentlessly clever adventure films of all time.

Some will complain that it runs too long, and they’re right. It runs long like some of the best parties.

Some will complain that there’s more running back and forth than in the whole career of Benny Hill, and they’re not far off the mark. It’s like watching three games of “Capture the Flag” happening at the same time in the same park.

Some will cry out that this sequel commits the sins of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, giving moviegoers something much darker and more violent than they expected… and parents should indeed be warned. This is an extremely violent, phantasmagorical adventure movie in which crows pull eyeballs from eye sockets and pirates are blown to pieces, devoured, and lashed into ribbons. But it’s the kind of grisly comedy that revels in the absurd — it’s not gore for gore’s sake.

Some will find the plot unfocused — and the first people to tell you that might be the screenwriters themselves, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. They were clearly having so much fun piling on the zany twists that I suspect they consumed a bottle or two of rum all for themselves.

But what does all of this matter when the movie, which is based on a ride that basically goes around and around, boasts more enthusiasm, humor, and creativity than the rest of this year’s action films put together? The plot here is an excuse for action, not a reason to be.

Who’s really going to complain about a summer movie that delivers too many good things, including the most spectacular big screen villain — in presence, design, and personality — since the shadow of Darth Vader first loomed in the smoky corridor of the rebel blockade runner?

And who can contend with Johnny Depp, who storms the screen with more confidence and charm than we ever knew was possible? Returning to the role of the irascible, irresponsible, irrepressible Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp gives one of those rare comic performances that would win an Oscar if the Academy was ever bold enough to recognize comic genius. Depp says he based his performance on Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones (who will, we’re told, appear in the third film as Sparrow’s father). But Sparrow shows us more than that. Here, this demented, dreadlocked sailor gives us hints of Tom Waits, Bugs Bunny, Errol Flynn, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. For all of Depp’s great performances — from the rock-and-roll rebel of Cry Baby to the pensive Gilbert Grape to Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood — Captain Jack is the triumph of his career. He made an unforgettable entrance on top of a sinking ship in the first film. He makes another unforgettable entrance here. And the fun begins.

It would be insufficient to say that Verbinski’s actors perform with relish. They throw in ketchup and mustard too, and all of the fixings.

The whole gang is back:

Refusing to let Depp have all the fun, Orlando Bloom shows he’s still determined to become an engaging action hero, even though Will Turner is more a force of chivalry and virtue rather than a character. (And to balance out the reckless irresponsibility of Sparrow, we really do need a heavy dose of true heroism.)

Keira Knightley returns, radiant as ever, in the role of Elizabeth Swann, Turner’s true love, and she shows more vim and vigor than any adventure heroine since Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark. One of this film’s big surprises is just how complicated Elizabeth really is, and just how vulnerable to change. Just when the movie begins to wear out its welcome, heading past two hours, it’s Elizabeth who suddenly takes center stage, one foot firmly planted in moral compromise.

Jonathan Pryce is back as her father, Governor Weatherby Swann. Jack Davenport is back as the disgraced Commodore James Norrington, who managed to redeem himself in the final moments of the first film, but who turns back to bitter villainy here. Kevin McNally reprises his role as Jack Sparrow’s right hand man, a tipsy sailor whose job it is to provide lengthy exposition, lest we forget that there’s a story going on. And the crusty old clowns Ragetti and Pintel, played by Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg, are back stirring up trouble like the roguish scallywags they are.

*     *     *

The plot is basically a boilerplate adventure-film outline. Actually, it’s more like several outlines.

When we last left Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, they had set Captain Jack Sparrow free from his death sentence, and seemed well on their way to a glorious wedding. This film opens with a bewildering sequence in which we learn that Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) of the East India Trading Company is going to punish Turner and Swann until they agree to find Captain Jack and capture something he keeps in his pocket… a magical compass.

The compass is a mystery. We don’t learn until much later what it can do. But for our purposes, the compass is the closest things to a moral center for this frenzied film. It gets us thinking about each character’s moral compass. What — or who — are they willing to risk their lives for? What do they treasure in this life?

Treasure — the bread and butter of any pirate movie. And there’s a lot of treasure being sought here. Beckett wants the compass. Jack Sparrow wants something else… he wants a mysterious key. And soon, he’s on the hunt for the heart of Davey Jones, that legendary sailor who lurks above and beneath the waves cursing unfortunate souls to slave away on his boat of nightmares. For Jack, the lost heart means freedom from the curse upon his soul… motivation enough. But for others, the heart of Davey Jones is the secret to ruling the seas. We’re not sure how that works, but I have a hunch we’ll learn.

And it doesn’t really matter yet, because the search keeps us  busy contending with all manner of spectacular monsters and life-threatening ordeals, including a tribe of primitive savages who set up their captives as gods before eating them; a massive sea “beastie” called “the Kraken” (but how do you pronounce that?); and, of course, Davey Jones himself.

Dead Man’s Chest is clearly a deliberate attempt to play The Empire Strikes Back to the Star Wars of the first film. It’s an amalgam of great second-movie plot twists, borrowing liberally from Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There’s a father-son relationship at the heart of the film. There’s a rebellious jerk who just might turn into a responsible hero. There are grudges and chases and fiery clashes between battleships. There’s a character whose heart has been yanked beating from a chest for all to see. There’s a spooky Caribbean witch (Naomie Harris), like Yoda’s wicked and meddling auntie, keeping secrets in the jungle. There’s even a rope bridge crossing a chasm that looks like it could break at any moment. It is, in short, a return to all that was great about the adventure films of the early 1980s.

Playing the film’s equivalent of the feisty Princess Leia, Knightley, having escaped Tom Hollander’s clutches in Pride and Prejudice, must dodge him once again here. As Will Turner, Bloom is the earnest Luke Skywalker of the story, a young man who must reckon with a troubled legacy left to him by his father, Bootstrap Bill. And, like Skywalker in that second Star Wars film, Turner is separated from his friends, struggling with the evil emperor of the seas, and gambling to rescue one of Davey Jones’s significant captives (Stellan Skarsgaard).

Meanwhile, we watch as the curse on Sparrow continues to gain ground, stalking him in the form of the Kraken (which is basically the granddaddy of the Watcher in the Water in The Fellowship of the Ring). He’s not concerned about heroism, he’s concerned about escaping with his life. But like Elizabeth, we have a hunch that somewhere in his rum-soaked heart, there’s a glimmer of goodness. When she prods at him, hoping to ignite his sense of virtue, she reminds him that there are moments for men to rise and demonstrate selfless courage. He replies, “I love those moments. I like to wave at them as they pass by.”

But the real surprise of the movie is Davey Jones himself. With a head made of octopi, a buccaneer’s hat so commanding it will make other sailors blush, and a fearsome ship called the Flying Dutchman that looks like it could open up its jaws and swallow other ships whole, Jones storms about the deck of his ship, surrounded by some of the most imaginative and dazzling monsters ever designed. He has something that the villains of Superman Returns and X-Men: The Last Stand never mustered — a tangibly sinister presence. He’s really scary, and not just because he’s ugly, but because he’s evil… really evil. As evil as Darth Vader, Captain Hook, Dracula, and Saruman combined. He revels in any opportunity to ruin something good, spoil a pending marriage, sink a beautiful boat, ensnare and possess a soul. As the tentacles writhe across the collar of his dark coat, so moviegoers will be writhing in their seats.

I’ll be blunt: Davey Jones is the most convincing and arresting computer-generated character ever made, and that includes Andy Serkis’s King Kong and Gollum. Just watch the expressions on that face, and look at the way he moves. He’s as real as anything in this movie. And the great British actor Bill Nighy gives him real venom. He’s a marvel, and I hope we see him again. I suspect we will.

Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack brings all of the bombast necessary, stirring up the anthemic glory of the great John Williams themes. And, in fact, while the film is all about a quest for the heart of Davey Jones, the movie ends up making me think about another person of the same name… Indiana Jones. I don’t think I’ve had this much high-spirited fun at the movies since Indiana and his hat set out for adventure. And Johnny Depp has made it perfectly clear that he’s as good a match for the role of Jack Sparrow as Ford was for Jones. He’s made these first two Pirates films unexpected classics, worth watching again and again.

And, if Verbinski can keep a firm grip on the wheel of this ship, maybe he can be the first to outrun the Curse of the Adventure Movie Trilogy: Pirates might just be the first adventure movie franchise to deliver three satisfying episodes in a row.