By Jack Dignan
Never has there been a role more perfectly suited to Johnny Depp’s strange, outlandish style of acting than that of Captain Jack Sparrow. His befuddled, drunken pirate first appeared in 2003, in a film significantly better than it had any right to be, especially given its origins as a Disney theme park ride. The film was a hit, and Johnny Depp’s career hereafter has transpired into Jack Sparrow rip off after Jack Sparrow rip off, but none managed to leave nearly as big an impression as that of the infamous pirate. In 2007, Disney released what was advertised to be the final adventure for our heroes, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. While it received mostly mixed reviews, to me, it’s jolly good fun, full of outlandish humour and extravagant set pieces. With Gore Verbinski in the director’s seat, you can do no wrong. But not too longer after, the franchise was reborn. Now, 10 years after the franchise’s initial conclusion, the series has officially come to an end for a second time. But, knowing Hollywood, nothing ever dies, so take that, once again, with a grain of salt.
Even rewatching the films recently, there’s a certain sense of euphoria when going back and revisitng the original Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Pirate movies are difficult to come by, yet the original Pirates trilogy satisfyingly delivered on its swashbuckling, larger than life premise. The villains were brilliant, the plots were epic, and the visuals were astounding. Sure, each film gradually felt more and more bloated, but no matter how many times I watch them, and in my youth I watched them a ton, they still manage to bring the kid out from inside of me. I feel immense joy and satisfaction from watching those first three movies, a feeling so few trilogies are successfully able to maintain. They had a proper conclusion. There was an ending. Then there was a fourth one, and a very bad fourth one at that. Now, the Pirates franchise has dropped its anchor with a tedious, lackluster fifth installment, unfortunately proving that On Stranger Tides was far from a one-off mishap.
Everyone’s favourite pirate, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), takes somewhat of a reluctant backseat in his latest, and hopefully final adventure. He’s a washed up has been, now more drunk than ever. The price on his head is low, lower than it’s ever been. While locked away in prison, a young man in the midst of a desperate search for the undiscoverable Trident of Poseidon approaches Jack. His name is Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites). Henry’s father, Will Turner (Orland Bloom), is living his life cursed to the Flying Dutchman, slowly becoming one with the ship, and it’s Henry’s quest to set him free. Together, with the help of fellow prisoner and accused witch Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), the three of them adventure off in search of the iconic treasure. But in doing so, Jack awakens the ghost of an enemy he once thought to be dead, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). Using Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), as his guide, Salazar travels the seas in search of Jack, desperate for vengeance.
While most of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies unapologetically rip off previous entries in the franchise, never has it been more apparent than in Dead Men Tell No Tales. Jack is without a crew. The villains can’t walk on land. There’s a treasure that can cure any curse. Any of this sounding familiar? It should. The film plays out as a combination of both the high point and low point of the series, mixing together the best and worst elements into a film that’s remarkably mediocre. Elements ripped straight out of the original feel dark and exciting, matched with the occasionally impressive colour pallet to suit, whereas the entire second half of the movie feels disappointingly reminiscent of On Stranger Tides. Several different parties, each after the same treasure for their own individual reasons, all show up at the same place at the same time for one final hoo-ha in a fight for glory… exactly like it did last time around.
Certain set pieces do work, and plenty of the others are fueled with a great idea, but poor execution. An early bank robbery gone wrong hits plenty of high notes with its dazzling visuals, well-timed humour and over the top chaos, but it’s mixed so poorly with sheer stupidity, as well as a few too many coincidences. It’s in this scene where something first starts to feel off about Jack Sparrow. He’s more of a McGuffin than he is a protagonist, mumbling and stumbling his way around the central plot while accidentally running into all the right characters and locations. His presence is forced into the script simply to give Salazar a reason for rocking up. Not once does Jack influence the events of the plot. Everything that does happen in this movie happens due to somebody else’s actions, minus one minor and somewhat insignificant event early into the movie. The Jack Sparrow from On Stranger Tides felt like a caricatured version of his character, but the Jack Sparrow from Dead Men Tell No Tales holds little to no resemblance of the character that once was.
Jack’s antagonist brings the film’s villainous angles back to its supernatural roots, something lacking in the fourth film that was part of the reason why it felt so unlike the Pirates franchise. When you bring in Javier Bardem to play your villain, you better hope the role suits his acting caliber. Alas, it doesn’t, or at least not entirely. In some regards, Bardem’s Captain Salazar is a worthy opponent, especially in terms of his appearance and tragic backstory surrounding his initial encounters with a terrifying teenage CGI Johnny Depp. The scene is fun, if not extremely tedious, but holy shit, I have no idea what went wrong with the de-aged Johnny Depp, but it’s far less impressive than previous attempts made by Disney. While their recent success with Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One is the high point of the newly developed de-aging technology, Johnny Depp is certainly the low point. That thing is going to give me nightmares.
In similar vein to recent blockbuster reboots, such as Creed and The Force Awakens, the baton is passed to a new generation of characters. Henry and Carina, more so than Jack, are our eyes and ears in this latest adventure through the seven seas. The two are forced to carry this movie on their shoulders, and each of the performances are serviceable, but the characters stumble, unable to carry their weight in a franchise already a few billion dollars in. Henry’s naivety dampens his character down. Granted, he’s far more interesting that Jack is in this movie, and his motives are perhaps the most clear of all the central characters, but his childish antics are more frequently annoying than they are heroic. But it’s not Thwaites’ fault, even with the odd stale delivery here and there. It’s the writing. The moment every single character is first introduced on screen, they each give a lengthy paragraph outlining their motives and backstory, making for some of the most forced exposition this franchise has ever burdened itself with.
The script by Jeff Nathanson feels more like an afterthought than the blueprint of the movie. His plot is rushed and unfocussed, and he attempts to make it unnecessarily complicated, when in reality it’s the simplest, most predictable plot to follow. Characters talk aloud all by themselves in order to explain the plot, but rarely anything needs much of an explanation. It’s a by the numbers, insert-witty-line-here type of read, bringing back a wide variety of original trilogy characters without earning their presence. Those who stayed away stayed away for good reason. Their careers are better off without this. Dead Men Tell No Tales marks the first time a new writer steps in to continue the tale, and while the filmmakers and advertising department have been hammering in the fact that everything’s coming to an end, the film’s conclusion, especially it’s groan-inducing post credit scene, suggest otherwise. Disney isn’t looking to put this franchise to rest any time soon. It’s just getting started, and if the last two films are anything to go by, we’re in for some excruciating sequels in the years to come.
Kon-Tiki directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg do their best to make Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales work, but not even Gore Verbinski and his ravish style could’ve saved this movie. It’s far less overblown and significantly shorter than previous installments, making it’s a swifter, faster time at the movies, but it just goes to show that length really doesn’t matter. Shorter, in this case, is not always better. It’s simply less time spent in a perpetual state of agony. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies have run aground. Not even Johnny Depp seems to care anymore. It’s inevitably not going to continue, especially with this weekend’s box office predictions, but please, let this franchise drift away. It’s time.
2 1/2 Stars
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