Film Review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" drags the series back to the middle
For what it's worth, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (hereafter Pirates 5) is the most engaging installment since the first one. Is that to say it's actually good, though? Well...
This series has had an interesting trajectory. While each one is plotted so similarly as to be indistinguishable from one another, the relative merits of each film vary wildly. The first is fresh and merry seafaring stuff, bolstered to greatness due to Johnny Depp's hip postmodern performance as the eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow; he treads that line between cool and clownish with such swagger. The story is standard Disney stuff dressed up with a big budget, but there are enough intense action and ghoulishness to keep the attention of an older audience, too. But that it signaled the arrival of a new kind of action hero is what really makes the film notable to this day.
The next two sequels, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, essentially two halves of the same film, are loaded with self-importance, loud noises, a lot of movement apropos of nothing, and so vehemently disregard notions of coherence and good sense that even a decade later they remain two examples of the worst kind of Hollywood excess. I kind of like them – you can't say those films aren't reaching for the stars, even if they end up face first in the gutter. There's a singular lunacy about them that's anything but generic, and Depp's performance may have devolved into schtick, but it's some good schtick.
The fourth one, On Stranger Tides, dialed back the excess and upped the tepid one-liners. The action and production design, consistently great in these movies, was shoddily put together; these films are 21st-century swashbuckling epics, and this looks like the whole thing takes place in an anonymous swampland. Jack Sparrow's appeal had evaporated by that point, his complexity stripped away in favour of making him a Tumblr gif for androgynous cool – and this was the film they decided to make him the main character of. It seemed like a good idea to let this behemoth, so clearly devoid of even a drop of inspiration, die. But it didn't matter that it was unenjoyable garbage because it made boatfuls of cash; a sequel was forthcoming.
So, Pirates 5. It's moderate Pirates; not as madly unwieldy as 2 & 3, but not as dull as 4. The best film since the first, even if it's not without its share of problems. The first twenty minutes or so are actually very strong, though; the plot threads are setup without a wasted minute, the action is cartoonish and perilous (appropriately so, lest we forget that this five-film series originated as a theme park ride), and the villains are the creepiest and most vile yet. Everything runs at an agreeable and comprehensible pace, which is unusual for a series as indulgent as this. But, sure enough, the story and character focus get away from directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg; all that's missing is a pompous announcer – “We now return to your regularly scheduled bullshit." That Pirates-specific bullshit being too many action scenes that are removed from earth's time and space (Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies are particularly guilty of this as well), too many frivolous Monty Python-esque misunderstandings one moment and morbid fantasy moments the very next, and too much exposition about the whatsits that will control the seas, and basically, who cares?
I think, though, Pirates 5 finds its footing again during it final twenty minutes, during which an exciting – and surprisingly emotional – underwater battle for a powerful magical trident takes place. And it ends with certain moments that, speaking as someone who's watched all of the sequels in the cinema with a kind of ambient disinterest, are spine-tingling. It's a good time in spite of its obvious shortcomings. I suppose a part of that is because it's the trimmest installment yet. I mean, just consider that Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is as long as the fucking Godfather. Sweet lord, we are spared such delusions of grandeur and madness this time, and that surely counts for something.
Javier Bardem is the obligatory undead antagonist for this supposed final chapter. While he threatens and murders people on their own ships, his black stringy hair eerily billows and swirls about as if obeying entirely different laws of physics. When he speaks, jet-black ooze dribbles down his chin, and when he moves, he sounds like he weighs only slightly less than a truck. His henchmen are equally unsettling, as they're missing huge chunks of limbs and facial features. To top it off, his name is Captain Salazar – with a name like that you're bound to be a treacherous fucker. Bardem, even when slathered under layers of digital prosthetics, radiates real danger as the cursed captain who has an old score to settle with Jack Sparrow, which - more than a search for some mythical treasure - is the proper conflict here.
Brenton Thwaites is Henry Turner, Will Turner's and Elizabeth Swann's son. He's...fine? It's a given that each film must have a bland paragon of nobility to offset the morally ambiguous hi-jinx of Captain Jack and the icky-ness of the villain. As far as those go, he's alright. Kaya Scodelario is Carina Smyth, and despite the fact that the driving force of her character is literally only “She's a WOMAN and can DO STUFF! Whaddya think'a that?!” she overcomes such thinness with sheer movie star charisma; it's an ineffable quality, but it's something you just know when you see it. Depp and Geoffrey Rush are curiously subdued and lethargic as Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbosa, respectively. But when they're together as the usual uneasy allies, they seem to bolster each other and threaten to be as magnetic as they were the first time.
So, is Pirates 5 actually good? If you're well and truly done with these movies, don't bother checking this one out; it's not exactly a redefinition. It's more of a reprise that sounds better than it has in a long time.