The first Pirates film was an unexpected success: wildly overlong and over-plotted yet kept afloat by a wicked, bravura, and utterly original performance by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, a swishily swaggering intaker of rum, eyeliner, and impudence. As is customary, the sequel was a pale imitation, and the third installment of the presumed trilogy went a bit trippy and meta.
The subtitle of the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie is “Dead Men Tell No Tales.” The moral of the movie, alas, is that the same cannot be said of dead franchises.
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, now five films deep into what can only be described as a flood of diminishing returns, is a lot like breakfast cereal. As far as metaphors go, there is perhaps another out there more suited to the themes of this series, something along the lines of thievery, or greed, but breakfast cereal, as colourful and worthless as the cardboard box it comes packed in, is the most efficient one I could find.
Every new film in this series – which was once (just once though) quite the breath of fresh air – has shown a substantial dip in quality from the one before. Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (also known as Dead Men Tell No Tales) achieves what I always felt was impossible – it’s denser than At World’s End, has more spinning wheels and moving parts than Dead Man’s Chest, and is – unbelievably – a step down from the already quite unwatchable On Stranger Tides.
Captain Jack returns, of course, although the character’s originality has gradually evolved into very nearly its opposite, a species of tired and vaguely embarrassing drag act.
Given that his co-stars Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom abandoned the franchise after the initial trilogy, Jack is supplied with a new pair of pretty, mutually attracted protagonists. Brenton Thwaites plays Henry Turner, a young adventurer who is the son of Bloom’s and Knightley’s characters. (No, the franchise hasn’t actually been around that long. Yes, it feels as though it’s been around even longer.) And Kaya Scodelario portrays Carina Smyth, an astrologer and horologist—sadly, there are quite a few jokes playing on that first syllable; more sadly still, they’re above average for the film—who is eventually revealed to be the daughter of well, I’d best leave that to “eventually.”
Javier Bardem shows up as the villainous undead pirate hunter Armando Salazar, inheriting the precise plot functions performed in previous installments by Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, Bill Nighy’s Davey Jones (who at least had the decency to hide himself under a faceful of tentacles), and Ian McShane’s Blackbeard. And series regular Rush is back again, his pirate Barbossa having been un-undead for several films now.
There’s a small role for Bloom, whose current career seems to consist largely of retconning characters (Legolas, Will Turner) from the period when some mistakenly thought he was a plausible leading man, into projects (The Hobbit, this latest Pirates entry) released at a point when we all know he’s not. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Knightley, who clearly has better things to do than waste time in this franchise.
And under the direction of franchise newcomers Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, the film can’t juggle its overblown, messy plotlines. It loses that sense of unhinged fun original director Gore Verbinski brought to the series. In fact, Rønning and Sandberg’s being chosen to direct this solidifies one of the most irritatingly narrow-minded Hollywood trends ever. They pick the most superficial aspect of an up-and-coming director’s breakout movie, and chuck around $200 million at their face and command them to make a blockbuster. Jose Padilha made a cop movie in Brazil, and was subsequently chosen to direct the RoboCop reboot. Gareth Edwards made a micro-budget movie called Monsters, and his follow up was Godzilla. In 2012, Rønning and Sandberg made Kon-Tiki, a movie about a sea expedition which featured prominently, a ship. Boom.
Thus, Pirates of the Caribben: Salazar’s Revenge, a film that feels twice as long as it really is, and roughly five times as boring. It’s the sort of film that, when confronted with the challenge to be creative, chooses to have its characters topple over for laughs instead. In the end, it drowns in a typhoon of CGI action, which, as far as death by drowning goes, is perhaps the most painful way for this series to have floated away. But there you have it.
Editor’s Remark: Don’t go into the Cinema Hall expecting it to be as fun as the former four parts. Although it is warming to see the character of Jack Sparrow after 7 years almost. Expect to be bored though.