With the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I appear to have a love/hate relationship. The first film, subtitled The Curse of the Black Pearl was a huge success, commercially and critically: I, myself, found it to be hugely entertaining and took warmly to Depp’s over-the-top antics. However, all subsequent films seemed to dwindle in quality and energy. Dead Man’s Chest just about sustained some of the original’s heart, providing a menacing and visually effective foil in the form of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). However, At World’s End and On Stranger Tides seemed to forget what made the original so creative: bigger isn’t always better as these sequels proved, taking the already promising foundations of the pirate world and all but disposing of them, in favour of a convoluted, almost absurdist touch.
And so we fall into the fifth instalment, directed by Norwegian filmmakers Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, confusingly subtitled Salazar’s Revenge (I say confusingly, because the American title is different, adopting the phrase Dead Men Tell No Tales instead). And while it certainly is an improvement over the third and fourth films, it still struggles to feel like anything more than a re-tread of past films, never really obtaining its own voice.
To give a brief synopsis, everyone’s favourite camp, drunk pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has lost a lot of his fearsome reputation. If this wasn’t the least of his worries, he becomes aware of a rumour that an old foe thought to be dead, named Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) is out to get his revenge on Jack, for reasons explained through the course of the film. In order to vanquish this undead spectre, and save his own skin in the process, Jack enlists the help of plucky astronomer Carina (Kaya Scodelario) and intrepid and determined seafarer Henry (Brenton Thwaites) to help him find an artefact, the Trident of Poseidon, that supposedly enables the bearer to lift all curses, thus granting Jack the ability to rid himself of this long-gestated foe.
Now, from the opening of this synopsis, you’d think it would follow more along the lines of the original: a cursed enemy, fantastical narrative elements, but still grounded without the excessive complications that came with the follow-ups. However, as is evident by my allusion to the fictitious MacGuffin ‘the Trident of Poseidon’, there is still the unnecessary weight of exposition and mythological mumbo-jumbo that often stalls the narrative in its tracks, needing time to be explained rather than merely guiding us on our journey. As with At World’s End and On Stranger Tides, there are far too many sub-plots and players within the search for said artefact, that keep us confused and leave the film feeling unfocused.
Luckily for us, not all of these plot threads are left underexplored. There are a number that really strike a home run, off the bat, particularly those involving Kaya Scodelario and Javier Bardem. Bardem, particularly in one flash back scene, really sells his anger and torment over his previous meetings with Jack Sparrow. The prosthetics and effects applied to Bardem to sell his ghoulish demeanour are particularly commendable, giving Bardem much more room to work in, in terms of convincing us of Salazar’s threat and motivations.
More significantly, however, is how wonderfully directors Rønning and Sandberg handle Scodelario’s Carina Smyth. A self-proclaimed astrologist and horologist, she’s the ideal female protagonist: a strong, confident and tenacious intellectual who still has her somewhat touchy, short-fused side that makes her relatable. She is also the centre of a number of brilliant quips and comic moments, one in particular involving the designation ‘horologist’ and the imprudent, oblivious assumptions made by the simple-minded pirate mates of the Black Pearl. In spite of the effervescent goofiness of Jack Sparrow and the cranky pirate antics of Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, making another welcome return), Scodelario comes off as the high point of the cast and narrative, straddling that line between audacious and relatable with great precision.
Nevertheless, there are still plot threads and characters that appear far weaker in the grand scheme of things, some of these unfortunately involving the characters we’ve come to know and love. Firstly, there is Henry. While actor Brendon Thwaites brings an abundance of energy and frivolity to his role, the character’s story is all but dropped to the side-line, as soon as the action kicks into second gear with the introduction of Carina and Jack into the narrative. It’s a shame, because his story would appear to have the most emotional weight. Yet it quickly makes way for the exaggerated capers of Captain Jack.
It is with Jack and Barbossa that I have the most issue. While both Depp and Rush are both as charming and compelling as always, their place within the story seems a little forced and hurried. For example, the flashback would appear to provide us with our first look at a younger Jack, his cocksure attitude and natural tendency towards the wheel of a ship. However, his abnormal, albeit amusing reactions to the narrative action do not fit these revelations. Salazar possesses a tangible vigour and desire for Jack’s demise, yet Jack never seems to realise his situation, refusing us to make any sort of connection to his survival. Of course, Depp is hilarious, but we should still care that he succeeds against Salazar, as we once did when he fought Barbossa in the original. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen here, making him feel a bit superfluous, which is a shame. Depp is hugely charismatic and I’d like to see him return to the character once more. Whoever takes up the mantle of the inevitable sequel needs to imbue Jack with some narrative purpose: we should care for him, as well as find ourselves amused by his actions.
Furthermore, Barbossa was easily the highlight of the previous films. A cantankerous, ever-fluctuating fre-enemy of Jack’s, Barbossa always provided some levity to the more serious character moments, providing a lively and mischievous back-and-forth quality to his relationship with Jack. However, here Barbossa is mostly left to his own devices, and without much of a crew to play off him, he again appears a little unnecessary to the story, added for the sake of alleviating the fans’ urges for more Barbossa and Jack wordplay. There are revelations made about his significance to the wider action that occurs, but these arrive a little too late for them to make any real sense: the context is flitted over, and thus the film fails to hit where it wants to in these areas. Again, like with Depp, Rush is a delight to watch. But overall, his character doesn’t succeed as he has before, with flying pirate colours.
The direction is also an oscillating album of hit-and-miss moments. Rønning and Sandberg, having directed the Oscar-nominated sea expedition drama Kon-Tiki, seemed like a perfect for this kind of ships-and-sails action. Yet, as with a number of blockbusters, some sequences rely a little too heavily on computer generated effects, that blur the fluency of the action, provoking an immediate disconnect: one sequence, set at night and involving a fight across the cannons of two ships, really tests the senses in terms of being able to make out what is happening and who’s striking who. Nevertheless, scenes involving an undead shark attack and a surprisingly practical bank robbery that goes a little overboard from what was expected, truly accomplish the sense of adventure and wonder that the original captured like a battery in a bottle. These sorts of moments demonstrate how effectually Rønning and Sandberg utilise Depp’s vibrant mannerisms, with Jack flipping and sliding across the scenery like he’s found himself lost in a Chaplin farce: Depp is wonderful at physical comedy, particularly in these kinds of roles.
In spite of this, as appears evident within this review, the film is still somewhat of a mixed bag. Its highlights, including the practicality of some action sequences and the introduction of interesting characters such as Carina and Salazar, do make it an enjoyable ride, and one I’d want to experience again. However, it is far from the intrepid and spontaneous brilliance of Verbinski’s original: Depp and Rush, still masterful in their craft, are misused within the film, and the action is often reduced to a cacophony of sound and visual impressions. I would like to see Depp and co. return for one more outing, to try and delineate from the now prevalent formula that has been overcooked these past few films. In order to achieve this, a return to simplicity, away from the jargon and exposition of these mythological MacGuffin quests, would be welcomed and effective. There are still historically infamous pirates such as Anne Bonny and Henry Avery that could be explored, grounded in reality in order to contrast and conflict wonderfully with Depp’s Jack Sparrow, a less than conservative depiction of criminal piracy. This kind of streamlining, cutting out unnecessary sub-plots and side characters, would benefit the franchise and take it into the high seas of action-adventure hits. As of now, though, The Curse of the Black Pearl is the only Pirates movie to hit the same crowd-rousing and innocently gratifying statures of classics such as Indiana Jones and The Goonies. Salazar’s Revenge, on the other hand, just misses the X on the map, veering a little too close to tamer waters.