The dreary second chapter of Pirates of the Caribbean.

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

It would take more than just one bottle of rum to while away the 150-minute running time of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Disney). The movie itself is a kind of treasure chest, albeit one so crammed with baroque visuals and tangled chains of plot that you have to sift through its overabundant contents in search of the odd pearl. In fact, if not for the running commentary offered by the obliging 8-year-old on my right, I’d have had no idea what was going on, as the movie depends heavily on in-jokes and references from the previous installment, The Curse of the Black Pearl—a movie I always meant to see, as soon as I felt sufficiently seaworthy. That day somehow never came.

Dropping in on the middle chapter of a trilogy seems as good a way as any of assessing the state of the franchise. In the case of the Pirates brand, complacency seems to have set in, replacing what I gather was the bold freshness of the original movie (which nonetheless clocked in at a none-too-swift 143 minutes). Dead Man’s Chest trades shamelessly on its status as the filler in the Pirates sandwich, ending on a surprise twist that’s a virtual advertisement for part three, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (due out in 2007). The ending was so lazy that on the way out of the screening I saw total strangers commiserating on its crassness. Did we really just sit through two and a half hours of deafening action sequences, wild plot twists, and at least two false endings only to be told, in essence, to cough up $10 more next year?

The film’s crisscrossing storylines are both convoluted and utterly dispensable. First, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the high-cheekboned lovers of the first installment, are imprisoned during their wedding ceremony by a merchant-trading bad guy (Tom Hollander) who threatens to execute them unless they can lead him to a magical compass owned by Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Sparrow, the mincing, sexually ambivalent captain of the Black Pearl, has problems of his own. He owes a blood debt to Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), the lord of the undersea world, and to avoid becoming an eternal member of Jones’ gooey undead crew, he must find the key to the chest containing Jones’ still-beating heart. All this nonsense is a fine pretext for much hoisting of grog, shimmying of masts, and near-roasting by island cannibals. If only the director, Gore Verbinski, had a feel for the propulsive energy needed to move a story forward.

Despite his heartthrob status in real life, Orlando Bloom has consistently functioned as a node of negative energy on-screen, sucking the life force out of all who surround him. Nonetheless, Keira Knightley, with her radiant mouthful of Chiclet-sized choppers, rallies as the plucky Liz. Knightley was too much the fairy-princess ingénue to make a credible Elizabeth Bennett in last year’s Pride & Prejudice, but when it comes to stamping her foot in period dresses, she has no peer.Asfor Depp’s Sparrow, he’s become a collection of tics in search of a character; he was probably more interesting in Depp’s script notes, since he comes off as an enigmatic visitor from another movie. As Davy Jones, the wonderfully soft-spoken British character actor Bill Nighy is unrecognizable beneath a foam-rubber head mask that turns him into a human cephalopod—not so much an octopus as a multipus, with countless earthwormlike appendages wriggling independently (and disgustingly) around his sagging, noseless yellow face. His head is one of the few takeaway images in a movie jammed to bursting with gross-out gags and eye-popping makeup jobs.

For all its cynical money-grubbing, Dead Man’s Chest has moments of exhilarating  beauty (as when a monstrous sea creature rises from the deep to clasp the pirate ship in its tentacles as if in a giant hand) and spectacle (an extended swordfight conducted atop a spinning waterwheel recalls both Errol Flynn and Buster Keaton). The effects are breathtaking, and much of the action is choreographed with energy and wit. (A chase sequence on a cliff uses visual gags that defy the laws of physics, Wile E. Coyote-style.) But all of these moments bob on the film’s slick surface like so much flotsam. Without a beating heart at its center, this Chest feels empty indeed.