Six years ago we endured the fourth installment of the acclaimed Disney franchise, and most viewers felt like it was a black spot on the series’ record. Honestly, I enjoyed At World’s End even with its latent inconsistencies and renewed focus on Johnny Depp’s outlandish performance. I am a huge fan, not only of the Pirates franchise, but of the original Disneyland ride as well as general pirate lore and imagery, so this may have allowed the film to get away with more indiscretions in my eyes than most others. However, I understood the outcry and the negative response the film received even if I didn’t join in on the hangings. But, now with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, I’m disinclined to acquiesce requests for the franchise’s demise. Fair Warning: There be spoilers ahead. You may not survive to pass this way again and these be the last friendly words you hear…
No, I have plenty of friendly words, unlike a majority of the reviews I have skimmed through. Dead Men is a very typical sequel to the swashbuckling, action powerhouse franchise. Filled with hammy performances, crazy special effects, over the top villains and as many myths of the sea that possibly be packed in, the 5th installment is as fun and charming as its predecessors. While it’s been difficult for the series to recreate the magic of Curse of the Black Pearl, they certainly have built a universe that I don’t mind spending a few hours in, even if the result is not always Aztec gold. The first film had a certain charm and inventiveness that audiences weren’t quite used to, or perhaps it was just that we didn’t know what to expect. Johnny Depp’s performance was surprising at the time, and created a whole generation of staggering fans trying their best to emulate his unique, fresh character. But, now 14 years later, we kind of know exactly what to expect from him and the progression of the film. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the formula still works. Complaints about character’s questionable intentions, issues with too many different motivations seeking the same prize, and problems with the lack of character development from film to film seem to be a bit misinformed when dealing with these stories. The movies are about PIRATES. And typically once you’re a pirate, you are always a pirate. Those facets of the film seemed to be very much in character and didn’t bother me one bit.
Dead Men tells the tale of Brenton Thwaites’ Henry Turner, who we quickly discover in the opening moments of the film to be the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley), seeking to break his father’s curse and sentence to the Flying Dutchman. Henry reveals that he will continue to resort to the actions of a pirate in order to free his father’s soul by hunting down the Trident of Poseidon, a legendary staff that can simultaneously break all the curses of the sea. The headstrong, but good-intentioned, son aims to seek out the infamous pirate, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) whose adventures with his father have become something of folk lore, in order to gain his assistance in locating the mythical Trident. Kaya Scodelario plays Carina Smyth, an astronomer and horologist (Hey, everyone needs to make some money sometimes), who finds herself in possession of an unreadable map to the Trident that only she knows how to decipher. She crosses paths with Henry and enlists him in her effort to find the Trident for her own purposes. The delightful trio are pursued across the cursed seas by some familiar faces as well as some new…slightly horrifying…enemies, all of which with their own devious desires in tow.
When we first find Jack Sparrow, he and his crew are in the midst of a high stakes bank robbery. In typical Captain Jack fashion, he has forgone his actual plan in lieu of a drunken tryst with a townsman’s wife inside of the bank’s sealed vault. The scene’s dialogue can be a bit tough to choke down due to Johnny Depp’s performance for the first half hour of the film. Depp chooses to turn Jack’s drunken absurdity up to about 150 and actually manages to turn this loveable character into an almost annoying and depressing shadow of what we first saw 14 years ago. Once the action picks up, Depp regains his footing and is quickly back to masterfully balancing quit wits and dumb luck to escape with an entire bank…yes…an entire bank. For the rest of the film it’s business as usual: Jack’s own selfish desires often outweighed by a nagging predilection towards do-gooding and helping someone in distress. The relationship between he and Henry Turner has a delightful Uncle/Nephew feel to it, and while he constantly claims be disgusted by the entire Turner family, it’s very clear that he loves them maybe even more than he loves himself. Seeing Jack’s fall from infamy to disgrace is actually a pretty heavy storyline, and seems quite fitting at this point in the series’ journey. I’ve heard several complaints that Depp’s hammy-ness has charted a course from genius to trite, but I have loved the character from the first moment I’ve seen him, so truthfully, more of the same is what keeps me coming back to see these characters.
The film’s new villain oozes exaggeration all over the screen, and frankly, it’s amazing. The ghostly Captain Armando Salazar is played by Javier Bardem with a gloriously camp-ridden eeriness that is unmatched in the film. His ship, The Silent Mary, and his crew are equally frightening and actually managed to make me a bit uneasy in some scenes, but nothing was quite as entertaining as Bardem’s performance. With blackish blue oil oozing from his mouth, he embodies the notion of death at sea. We get a glimpse at his backstory and it’s actually even more frightening than his characterization. Salazar is a Spanish captain whose father is killed by pirates, setting him on a war path to wipe the seas clean of the pirate life. He becomes known as The Butcher of the Sea, killing countless pirates, until the day he crosses paths with a young Jack Sparrow. Jack manages to escape his grasp and leads him straight into The Devil’s Triangle, before swiftly tricking them to their demise and escaping with his patented walk of ego. All in one amazingly well-crafted scene (just wait till you see young Jack) we get to witness Jack get his hands on his famous compass, become “Captain” Jack Sparrow, and receive his trademark hat. Salazar, now in his ghostly rags, will stop at nothing to hunt down the good captain and exact his revenge. While he is creepy, I think his accent adds a level of humor to his performance, with a few moments coming off as less intimidating and more Conan O’Brien character. Although he can be campy and silly at times, he is still a savage and very present danger in the film.
Series alumni Geoffrey Rush brings the amazing Captain Hector Barbossa back in style. Having forged a deal with the Ghost Captain Salazar, Barbossa is tasked with leading him to his former captain/enemy/ally/frenemy, Jack Sparrow. Of course his true motivations for helping Salazar are completely self-involved and lead him to discovering a touching twist about his past. Once he catches up with Jack & co he is, of course, more apt to team up with him to take down Salazar rather than dragging Jack to his demise. When we last left Barbossa he was captain of the Queen Ann’s Revenge and wielded the eerily powerful Sword of Triton, which he uses to finally release the only ship capable of outrunning their ghostly pursuers, The Black Pearl. Barbossa has long been my favorite part about any of the Pirates films, including his twist cameo at the end of Dead Man’s Chest, and that course hasn’t been altered one bit. He has been the source of the most pirate-y aspects of the entire franchise, and as much as people flocked to Johnny Depp’s levity, Rush has been the most quintessential pirate in the films, even acting as the go-to character to belt out a line or two from the original ride. Late in the film Hector discovers that Carina is his estranged daughter, causing him to reaffirm his position on the true meaning of treasure, and his willingness to die for it. In his final act, Hector decides to give his daughter a fighting chance at survival by plummeting to his doom, and dragging Salazar down to the depths of the sea with him. Barbossa’s death was tough for me because, even after being resurrected in the past, this felt final and truly a fitting end to his legacy. While I was sad to see him go (and believe me…I cried), if this is the last we see of the large-hat-loving pirate, that is fine by me.
Now, there were some aspects of the story that felt needlessly convoluted, or not well fleshed out, including Golshifteh Farahani’s witch character, Shansa, who served mostly as an excuse for interested parties to magically find the location of Jack Sparrow. I get the feeling that there has to be more to her story that was either cut out of the movie or simply dismissed while filming. There doesn’t seem to be justification for her presence, and there seems to be some inconsistencies with the treatment of supposed witches in this universe. Even Davis Wenham’s captain of the Royal Navy, Scarfield (not a joke), has bland motivations and creates one of the most boring antagonists to sail the high seas. It’s not that he is a bad actor or that his performance is even remarkably poor, but the shoehorned additional threat feels under developed, although these types of characters are a common complaint throughout the entire series. The Royal Navy also sentences Carina to death early on in the film just for talking about stars, but seems completely cool working with a known witch to find Jack Sparrow and his cohorts. I think the film also fell short when it came to the music. With Hans Zimmer departing from the composer seat, the film seemed to be missing a certain spark with the overall soundtrack. Many of his themes were used and revamped, but the main PotC theme, “He’s A Pirate”, seems to be absent and is dearly missed. But, that may just be the nostalgia in me begging to be satisfied, because the work done with the soundtrack, on its own, isn’t half bad.
The final scenes of the movie leave us with some much needed fan service, finally bringing a newly curse-free Will Turner back to the loving arms of his doting wife, Elizabeth. While completely telegraphed, it was still a touching moment that fans have been waiting years to see again. As a man I can fully deny having cried in the theatre when the two kissed and were reunited with their son (Just don’t ask the people that I was with for confirmation). Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario’s characters embrace each other’s new found love, but I can’t help but get the feeling I was tricked into enjoying it. The two have an undeniable chemistry, and the film doesn’t spend too much time jamming their love subplot down our throats, but they both seemed to have clumsily stumbled into this affection. But, after all, what is a good adventure movie without the pirate getting the girl? As with other Pirates films, it ends with an after credits scene that seems to not only foreshadow future storyline, but also completely negates the plot of the entire movie we just watched. As Will and Elizabeth sleep quietly together, a figure enters the room and looms over the two. Just as we start to make out the uncanny features of Davey Jones, and as he raises his claw hand, Will wakes up to reveal that it was just a dream. Or was it? Yea, Super Cheesy. But still pretty hype! Normally, I can just forgive the neglect of continuity in the favor of a certain cool factor, but I just spent two hours learning about a Trident that negates all the curses of the sea. So, it seems a bit odd that Davy Jones is still rocking his sweet squid beard if all of the curses have been broken. But, we’ll leave that for the other critics to tear apart.
The look of the film echoes the original trilogy, and far surpasses our last outing with Captain Jack. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg honed a wonderfully creepy aesthetic, and while some scenes are a bit too dark to make out, the majority of them are beautifully done. Some action can become lost in the darker moments, which is the majority of the film, but seeing how the movie is about death, it seems appropriate to have a level of discomfort and uncertainty strung throughout. The movie isn’t perfect, by any means, but at the end of the day, none of the movies in the series are. I think audiences and critics are just less willing to forgive the short comings now that some of the novelty has started to wear off. The film is still fun, and actually does a wonderful job echoing some of the action/comedy scenes from the original trilogy. Among others, a scene where Jack is rescued from a guillotine evokes the awesome absurdity of the Pirates universe. Finally, the film has a stroke of genius and gives something I think every pirate fan has been longing to see: Zombie Shark Surfing. Oh yea, we said it. Zombie Sharks. While the storyline doesn’t seem to be as well defined as the original, the point of these films for me is to have a fun time watching pirates and hearing them spout those wonderful catchphrases. So, on that front Dead Men Tell No Tales fully delivers its bounty.