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Taking a bow at the stern 

The latest Pirates of the Caribbean adventure leads the charge of the fight brigade

Don't bother scanning the horizon for the Jolly Roger, black sails or any other telltale signs of cutthroat marauders. The pirates stormed our shores long ago, and they've got a tighter grip on pop culture than they ever held on any historic plunder. Their beachhead begins with our children. Practically every kids' show has a pirate-themed episode or regular sidekick, like The Wiggles' Captain Feathersword. This summer, they're invading playhouses all over the city, with Georgia Shakespeare staging its first children's show, Robert Louis Stevenson's archetypal Treasure Island (July 5-22). At the Center for Puppetry Arts, Captain Hook and his scurvy crew retreats when Peter Pan closes July 9, then Everybody Loves Pirates takes its place July 12-30.

Buccaneers' ambitions go beyond kid's stuff. "Arrr!" echoes across the land on Sept. 19, "National Talk Like a Pirate Day," the existence of which suggests that Dodgeball's "Pirate Larry," who fancied himself a freebooter, was no one-time kook. New books on brigands range from Gideon Defoe's tongue-in-scraggly-cheek Pirate Adventures series to The Complete Idiot's Guide to Pirates.

The flagship of the attacking armada is unquestionably the Pirates of the Caribbean film trilogy. Did ye not ken that there be three films, me hearties? After the rampant success of The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2004, Disney launched two more, with Dead Man's Chest opening this week and the already-filmed finale, At World's End, scheduled for next summer. (The irony of an industry celebrating the pirates of previous eras, while spending fortunes to fight film piracy today, should not go unnoticed.)

The Curse of the Black Pearl took palpable joy in rediscovering the swashbuckler, as if the cast and crew got in touch with their inner pirate and commandeered the rest of the movie-going public. Johnny Depp famously took inspiration for his slurring, sashaying scalawag Capt. Jack Sparrow from Keith Richards, appreciating that bad-boy, bandanna-wearing rock stars serve as modern-day pirate figures. Are they not equally fond of singing, drinking and wenching? Part of the appeal of pirates is their defiance of authority, and Dead Man's Chest casts the East India Trading Company as the freedom-squelching Establishment, with Tom Hollander's plutocratic new villain bent on buying out the high seas.

Better than any film based on a theme park ride had a right to be, the first Pirates' virtues included snappy humor in the spirit of Richard Lester's witty, slapstick-rich Three Musketeers films of the 1970s. In Dead Man's Chest, the original's cleverness springs a leak and relies on elephantine comedic set pieces, such as a swordfight atop a runaway waterwheel that's reminiscent of the feeble follow-ups to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Perhaps knowing they've got two movies to fill up, the filmmakers kill time with an extended, borderline-racist sequence among hungry cannibals.

With lush photography and textured set and costume design, director Gore Verbinksi helms a kind of cinematic equivalent to theme-park rides. You're parked in a movie seat and not a little motorized boat, but his films, no matter how dramatically under-nourished, offer a feast for the eyes that in Dead Man's Chest include spooky swamps, ominous shipwrecks and boisterous ports of call.

In the sequel, heat percolates between Jack Sparrow and Keira Knightley's adventurous Elizabeth Swan as they question each other's "pirate" nature. She accuses him of concealing his inner goodness, he teases her for being drawn to the dark side, but their potentially intriguing arguments sound more like tired rom-com bickering. Jack's motivations prove murky as he tries to secure the titular dead man's chest and outmaneuver Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), a kind of a nautical Satan with a claim on Jack's soul. (But I thought Davy Jones had a locker.) Either Jack has grown more cowardly than the previous film or he's pursuing a sneaky long-term strategy, and Depp's now-familiar performance doesn't clarify matters. Either he's acting out of character or the plot has lost its way.

Despite many disappointing aspects, Dead Man's Chest features a superb middle section involving Jones and the Flying Dutchman. Not only is the ghastly, submersible ship covered in barnacles and shellfish, but so is the crew, mutating after years of servitude into freaks with heads like moray eels, hammerhead sharks or conch shells. Amid hellish visions worthy of Hieronymous Bosch, dashing Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) encounters his damned dad (Stellan Skarsgard) in the scenes with the highest emotional stakes.

Apart from the tendency to sound like Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Nighy's Jones -- with a giant crab claw for a hand and tentacles for beard and dreadlocks -- is a timeless villain that matches Depp's creativity of Sparrow in the first film. Jones' pet creature, a ship-scuttling, squid-like kraken, delightfully harks back to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the 1950s best giant monster movies.

Still, the film's protected, cliffhanger ending leaves you weary at the thought of one more chapter.

Pirates themselves will probably retain their popularity. As a class, they lead lives free of consequences, moral or otherwise, and perhaps that's especially attractive in a decade during which every choice, from American military ventures to what kind of gas to put in your car, seems to have fraught global implications. Pirates have nary a care in the world -- and they get to wear puffy shirts, tricorn hats and eye patches. Who wouldn't want to climb aboard?

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