Perhaps it’s only fitting that the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies seemed to be getting worse the more money they made at the box office; after all, isn’t just like a pirate to make off with the spoils while doing nothing to bloody earn it. But with the fourth venture of flailing ruffian Captain Jack Sparrow making a frankly disgusting amount of money despite being possibly one of the most forgettable blockbusters ever made, there was no way the franchise was in danger of running aground even though we’d long since lost the focus of the original.
However, with the arrival of Dead Men Tell No Tales (re-subtitled Salazar’s Revenge for international markets), the filmmakers vowed to return to the series roots and strip out some of that tangled continuity – but then, that’s a pirate for you: always bullshitting.
Young Henry Turner, son of cursed Will Turner, has vowed to free his father from being bound to the Flying Dutchman for eternity and embarks on a quest to track down rum sozzled pirate Captain Jack Sparrow to enlist his aid. However, said Jack Sparrow is somewhat down on his luck these days with a daring bank heist leaving his motley crew to finally abandon him once and for all and during this newest brush with rock bottom, Jack trades in his enchanted compass for a bottle of rum. This trade manages to cause something of a supernatural chain reaction to arise somewhere in the Devil’s Triangle as the bile-dripping ghost of Armando Salazar, a Spanish pirate hunter Sparrow bested with explosive results during his youth, escapes to terrorize the seas with his similarly spectral crew.
During all of this hullabaloo, a young astronomer Carina Smith is on the run from authorities while being under suspicion of witchcraft (i.e. being an intelligent woman in unenlightened times) and teams up with Henry in order to locate Poseidon’s trident which has the power to cancel out all curses that inflict the sea and after inevitably running into Jack by chance (the Caribbean must be a suspiciously small place), the bickering group set out to claim their prize with Salazar and the British fleet sniffing their trail.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Pirates Of The Caribbean story without a spanner or two in the works and so enters Captain Barbossa who has not only returned to his pirating ways but has that fleet he’s always wanted – but when Salazar’s ship eating vessel starts tearing through his boats, he desperately makes a deal with the spooky Spaniard to locate Jack and the trident in order for Salazar to restore life to the wispy form of him and his crew.
So, first things first. For a movie that the filmmakers claim was a “requel” (whatever the fuck that’s supposed to be), it doesn’t half carry a lot of plot baggage from the earlier movies. Not only to we immediately tackle Will Turner’s eternal servitude upon the flying Dutchman from At World’s End but we also have scenarios left over from On Stranger Tides as well, such as the shrunken Black Pearl that still languishes in a bottle courtesy of Black Beard – but despite the fact that this is about as fresh a start as an Avengers movie, directors Joachim Rønning and Epen Sandberg understand the farcical slapstick far better than previous helmer Rob Marshall ever did and inject some of Gore Verbinski’s sense of the absurd back into Jack’s Tom & Jerry style escapades.
If I’m being honest, it’s still nowhere near the quality of the first movie, but it easily matches the second thanks to its extended set pieces that grow ever more outrageous as the film move on (an early scene that attempts to redo the climax of Fast 5 but with horses is nice and stupid and a moment involving a twirling guillotine is idiotic genius) and an absolutely fantastic villain who manages to stand ethereal head and shoulders with the best that Sparrow’s otherworldly rogues gallery has to offer.
There’s still some systemic, franchise issues that floats around the pacing like bits of flotsam and jetson, the chief offender being that the repeated back and forth of everyone’s allegiances is now beginning to get pretty tiresome (you could easily shave off a good 10 or 15 minutes if you’d just have Jack, Henry and Carina meet in the same cell and get on the same page), also we yet again have another male supporting lead who is dull as dish water with Brenton Thwaites’ Henry Turner being such a wet fish he should be swimming alongside the ships rather than standing on them. Elsewhere, there’s also a feeling that Johnny Depp now may be using his most beloved role as a something of a flamboyant ATM and at times seems that he’s doing a Jack Sparrow impersonation rather than fully inhabiting the character as he once did as he mugs his way through some cringeworthy puns. “A one legged man with 18 pound balls? That’s why he walks funny.” replies Jack when quizzed about Barbossa’s use of heavier cannonballs as your brain involuntarily fills in the comedic ba-dump-tish.
Lastly, the movie contains a surprising amount of continuity snafus that, while not exactly being the end of the world, is still sort of annoying; Why would Will Turner start going all seaweedy if he’s following the rules of the Flying Dutchman? If Jack first became a captain due to the deal he made with Davey Jones, then how to we explain him taking command of a ship to defeat Salazar in his youth? And why does a noticably squidded up Davey Jones show up in the post credits sequence if all the curses are lifted?
However, as irksome as some of these issues are, it’s certainly the most fun the franchise has been in a while and a big reason for that is Javier Bardem’s awesomely eerie Captian Salazar who ranks up some kick-ass character tics while his hair and clothes drift around him like he’s still underwater. Rolling out the “R’s” in Sparrow like his life depended on it and using his duel cutlasses as crutches, his crew are similarly all missing vital parts of their anatomy and they even utilise some dead wildlife such as a trio of zombie sharks (fricking zombie sharks, people!).
Additionally, Kaya Scodelario is an admirably tough female lead and the cherry picking of various comedy characters such as Kevin McNally’s Mister Gibbs and Stephen Graham’s Scrum from the previous movies proves to be very welcome and it even balances out some of the stuff that doesn’t work such as the matter of Carina’s parentage which, in a film populated with sea splitting tridents, zombie seagulls and a cameo by Paul McCartney, ultimately proves to be the toughest pill to swallow.
Considering that Depp’s most harrowing adventures may have been that of his recent court appearances, it seems that the voyages of Jack Sparrow may finally be at an end, but at least it ends on a relative up note as, like a life raft, it bobs happily around the C level.