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Back on Deck 

The biggest surprise about this film's predecessor, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, was how surprisingly good it was -- a comedy-laced adventure of major proportions with, literally, something for everybody, of every age, that took in $300 million at the box office.

Too bad that the same kind of surprise doesn't happen again -- but that's not at all a bad thing. It's just that, with the film again featuring the same give-it-their-all cast, the same director and writers, and the same studio backing, there's no surprise that it's just about as good.

Of course, as happens often in sequels to successful films, everything about it is bigger, from the budget to the sets (some of them comparable to Peter Jackson's) to the set pieces. About the only drawback to it is that it exists, much like Back to the Future Part II, as a bridge to the trilogy's conclusion (currently titled simply Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and scheduled for release next May with, apparently, Keith Richards in a small part as Jack Sparrow's dad). The film definitely ends with a conclusive bang, but all kinds of doors are left open.

While not absolutely necessary, it would be advantageous for those who haven't seen the first film to visit a DVD shop and do so. Getting a whiff of that film's flavor and the antics to come, is a good idea.

Dead Man's Chest again presents the inept but dashing and charismatic Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in a funny and less than grand entrance scene, and eventually reunites him, in a loosely triangular set-up, with the blacksmith and son of a pirate Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and a Caribbean governor's daughter Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley, lovely as ever, but alas, dressed through most of the film in men's clothing).

Will and Elizabeth are to be married, but within minutes of the film's start are pulled apart by lawmen -- and sentenced to death. She's tossed in the hoosegow; he's ordered to find the rapscallion Sparrow, whom they're both accused of helping to escape. (I've changed my mind -- if you haven't seen it, you must see the first film.) If he succeeds, and brings Sparrow to the smarmy Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander), all charges will be dropped.

But the captain has problems of his own. He and his crew from the Black Pearl have landed on the wrong Caribbean island, and the local natives have made him their chief (complete with face makeup out of a Three Stooges routine), while sticking the crew in cool-looking suspended cages. It's not giving too much away to say that among these natives, it's not always good to be chief.

This island segment marks the first of a number of gags about people chasing people, and people wanting things from other people. The natives want Sparrow; Lord Beckett wants Sparrow's compass; Sparrow wants a key that he believes will open the object of the film's title. And watch out! Davy Jones (a marvelously squid-faced Bill Nighy), ghostly captain of the infamous Flying Dutchman, wants to collect on a debt he says Sparrow owes him -- something to do with his soul.

As with the first film, once Depp makes his appearance, he's front and center in almost every scene -- filling them with exaggerated comic facial expressions and swishy body movements. But, as one of his crew members notices, "The captain seems to be actin' a bit strange." That's true. Sparrow is a little unfocused, kind of jittery; he's more comfortable on or near shore than out on the open seas. You would be, too, if you knew a kraken was after you. (It's a horrific creature that does the evil bidding of Davy Jones.) The Pirates kraken is so superb that I'm sure veteran effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, who created a similar but obviously rudimentary one decades ago in It Came from Beneath the Sea would give it kudos.

As Dead Man's Chest plays out, there are legends and superstitions galore -- brilliantly conceived -- and very slimy sailors, heroics, deceptions, pratfalls (most of them by Depp), romance, a rousing score by Hans Zimmer and a glorious sword-fighting set piece that literally spins across a vast landscape.

If you're one of those viewers who bolts for the doors as soon as the credits run, you're going to miss something. So stick around; just as with the first installment of Pirates, there be treasures awaitin' ye at the bottom of Dead Man's Chest.

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