Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
Here’s the thing about the Pirates movies. Other than MAYBE the DCCU, it’s probably the most frustratingly simple conceit imaginable that they keep managing to screw up over and over again, so while some people may have a seething hatred for them (I wouldn’t blame you if you did), I find myself disappointed more than anything. Now credit to where it’s due. The first movie is still good, I like a lot of what they were doing with the second film, and I even think the fourth film was a marked improvement over the nadir that was At World’s End. In fact, the fourth film is the closest since the first film of what this franchise SHOULD be which is the cinematic equivalent of pulp adventure books like the Conan stories or John Carter of Mars; a universe comprised of interesting and diverse characters but with stories that can be enjoyed individually. Where Pirates started to screw up (and then self-imploded with the third one) was in trying to focus too much on continuity, MacGuffins, and character motivations that spanned MULTIPLE films; all of which made it almost impossible to enjoy the second and third ones on their own and why the fourth one felt like an okay start to a new direction for this franchise. Will they continue that trend with this new one? Well… probably not considering that Will and Elizabeth are returning to the series which presumably means a whole lot baggage is coming along with them, but let’s find out!!
The movie picks up several years after the events of On Stranger Tides, though more importantly for the purposes of this story, after the events of At World’s End as we have the son of Will and Elizabeth Turner (Orland Bloom and Keira Knightley) named Henry (Brenton Thwaites) trying desperately to break the curse on his father that has imprisoned him as the Captain of the Flying Dutchman. While working for the British Navy, the ship he’s training on crashes face first into THE DEVIL’S TRIANGLE (wouldn’t you want to AVOID something named that?) and he’s left as the sole survivor of an attack by the ghostly crew of Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem). Now Henry has been looking for Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) for some time to see if he has some insight into saving his father and Captain Salazar manages to suss this out, so on top of leaving him as the sole survivor in order to spread his legend, he ALSO want him to give Jack a lesson when he finds him; mainly that he plans on killing that guy the first chance he gets. Now after that prologue, we jump to the Island of Massive Coincidences where Jack just so happens to be wasting his days away drinking rum and there also JUST SO HAPPENS to be a woman named Cariana Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) who may have the answer to finding the GREATEST TREASURE OF THEM ALL and exactly what Henry needs to break his father’s curse. Oh, and Henry JUST SO HAPPENS to be sent to this island after he’s found by the British Navy because why not. I won’t spoil much more at this point (mostly to keep this mercifully short) but by the start of the second act, Jack, Henry, Carina, and a few salty sea dogs (including Joshamee Gibbs played by Kevin McNally who’s been a staple of this series since the beginning), are sailing towards this mysterious treasure known as The Trident of Poseidon which can possibly break Will’s curse. They aren’t the only ones headed in that direction however as Captain Salazar is after Jack, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is KIND OF after Jack, and some dude from the British Navy (David Wenham) is after all of them so he can throw them in jail. Will Jack Sparrow manage to find this treasure and also avoid the wrath of Salazar who just so happens to have a grudge against him? What exactly did Jack do to Salazar in order to gain his ire, and how far will he go for revenge? Do these movies REALLY need to be this complicated every single freaking time!?
The best thing I can say about this movie is that I’m not quite sure if it’s the worst in the series which is certainly damning with faint praise, but it also means that I did find a few things to enjoy in here even if the overall package is an unbearable slog. It has the most in common with the third one which is kinda baffling considering that that film at least had two other movies of continuity to deal with; the primary reason it felt so bloated and ended up being a huge disappointment. Here, it feels like they’ve crammed the first three Pirates movies, with all its silly characters, unpredictable moments, and magical MacGuffins, into this one two hour package for seemingly no reason! No wait, it’s even worse! That would imply that they bother to EXPLAIN shit in the first part of this movie that would pay off later! This is more like the third movie in a trilogy that we never got parts one and two of as I was still scratching my head at even the most basic of concepts and motivations by the time the credits started to role. It’s like they looked at the last film, figured out which elements managed to work, and then RIPPED them out of the script for this one because… honestly, I really don’t know. I have no idea what’s going through Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer’s minds when they try to take a freaking movie about magic pirates and try to make it the most convoluted and densely packed messes imaginable, but sure enough they succeeded in doing that here.
I don’t think there’s a single plot point in this convoluted story that makes the tiniest bit of sense which is impressive considering just how many they managed to stuff in here. Surely ONE of them wouldn’t feel half-finished if only by accident, but nope! Seriously, if someone can tell me who the hell wrote the damn book that Carina is carrying around and how it would make ANY sense in terms of the plot of this movie, please let me know because I’m still completely baffled by that one. At least in At World’s End, the needlessly convoluted elements felt like they were part of a much larger series of events set in motion by the previous films. Here, we don’t have that sense of scope or scale as everything that’s important is TOLD to us here rather than having been shown previously, and we’re given new characters that don’t get enough time to have any real impact on the plot. There’s a witch in here who I assume is supposed to be the replacement for Calypso (whatever happened to her in that third film anyway?) but she just shows up and is out of the movie just as quickly as she appeared in it. They’ve got yet another waspy British mother fucker chasing the pirates around, but unlike Admiral Norrington, and Lord Beckett, this dude is given no personal ambition outside of being a sea cop and has zero impact on the plot as the bad guys make VERY short work of him. Speaking of the bad guys, while I love Javier Bardem he is ABSOLUTELY wasted in this as the least interesting villain in the entire franchise. His motivation and backstory with Jack Sparrow is just not sufficient for the seething hatred he has against him specifically, and the connection between him, Jack, and the MAGIC COMPASS, makes absolutely no sense; even in a world of magic ships and pirate ghosts.
Okay, before I lose all semblance of self-control and go into a ten page rant about everything that doesn’t make any sense in this movie, let’s take a step back and examine how that one complaint affects the film as a whole. After all, there’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief built into this franchise already, so there being unexplained magic artifacts with inexplicable powers isn’t TOO hard to buy in a film like this, right? Okay, even if we ignore that as well as the rather weak and inexplicable character development (admittedly another hallmark of the Pirates sequels), the film is still very deficient in many areas; particularly the pacing and overall flow of events. Because of all the new elements that need to be explained, which includes a notebook, the blood moon, Poseidon’s Trident, Bardem’s ghost crew and so on, it leads to a first act that is rather dragged out as all of this needs to be explained along with the new status quo that we’re establishing with Jack, Will’s son, Barbossa, and everyone else. By the time we get through all that, the entire second act is a total dead zone of nothing as pretty much everything got explained in the first act (not to MY satisfaction but to the film’s) and all we have left is to wait for about four different pirate ships to reach their destination, and then the third act which is supposed to be the payoff for everything set up earlier lands with a resounding thud because it’s impossible to care about anything that’s going on at this point. If they bothered to make any of the new characters interesting like Will’s son who barely has anything to say of note or if they cut back on the Jack Sparrow wackiness shtick, they COULD have used that second act to give the third one some real impact and meaning. Instead, it feels like the script was only halfway written with all the effort in setting up the endless amount of subplots and magical doo-dads but no effort in making them mean a damn thing once the cameras started rolling. Simplicity would have helped this movie quite a bit as it did with the last film, but there seems to be someone behind these films (I’m guessing Bruckheimer) that is absolutely determined to make sure they at least LOOK big and important; lest someone dare to call them DUMB or DISPOSABLE. The problem is that no one who has written these (except for the writers on the first one) have had quite the writing chops to back those assertions up. It’s a simplistic and amateurish idea of what makes an IMPORTANT BLOCKBUSTER as almost all of the detail and effort went into the surface level elements (the set designs, costuming, effects, and Magical MacGuffins) but what we’re left with is an empty suit of a movie. It looks good, but it’s completely hollow inside and I’m not all that interested in having it drone on about nothing for two damn hours.
If there’s one thing that is unambiguously good about this movie, it’s the same thing that was good about ALL the other movies and that’s Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbosa. What makes his character work so well in all these movies, other than his FANTASTIC pirate accent, is that he’s always in the movies JUST enough to chew up the scenery and steal a few scenes without overstaying his welcome which is precisely what Jack Sparrow has been doing since the second film. Now as much of a shitty person Johnny Depp has revealed himself to be in the last few years, I still think he’s a solid actor and I’ve always enjoyed Jack Sparrow to a certain extent. The problem comes in when he’s forced to carry a movie all on his own as that exaggerated character which doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance or subtlety and it REALLY starts to feel like he’s completely run out of steam here. Oh he’s TRYING to be sure, but the gags are getting noticeably lamer and his shtick is getting less and less interesting. Compare that to Geoffrey Rush who’s been in four out of five of these (if you want to count his ten second cameo in Dead Man’s Chest, go ahead), but probably has the same amount of screen time across all of them that Jack had in say… the first two movies. He hasn’t really changed up his performance in all that time (same way as Jack) but because he’s still allowed to be a supporting character, he’ doesn’t wear on the audience quite as fast. That, and it also feels like that the best material was given to him this time around which COULD be another example of me damning with faint praise when you compare his writing to how weak the rest of it is overall (isn’t he supposed to have magic ship powers in this that he got from the last movie!?), but he’s an absolute delight every time he shows up.
Speaking of lovable characters from the franchise’s history, if you have any interest in seeing how Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly’s return to the series plays out, I’ll tell you but it will involve spoiling key details about their roles. Now I would actually classify this more as a WARNING than a SPOILER ALERT, but if you don’t want any spoilers, you might want to stop here.
We good? Alright, they are straight up cameos. Orlando Bloom gets a scene at the beginning, and the two of them show up at the very end. Hell, Keira Knightly doesn’t even get a line when she shows up, so I’m not even sure why they bothered in the first place! It’s just yet another example of how lazily referential this movie is to the other films and completely wastes an idea that COULD have really helped this movie along. Think about it. Orlando Bloom is DAVY FREAKING JONES with a ghost crew! Isn’t that the SAME EXACT THING as the bad guys chasing Jack and his son around!? WHY WASN’T THERE A GHOST SHIP FIGHT IN THIS MOVIE!? It certainly wouldn’t have been any more bewildering than anything else in here! In fact, it would have been significantly LESS so because this aspect of the mythology has already been explained unlike everything new they ended up shoving in here!!
I’ve done pretty much nothing but rag on this movie, so in all fairness I want to clarify that I would GLADLY take a convoluted and portentous pirate film like this over a Michael Bay Robot Boom-a-thon any day of the week. I doubt that’s something that Disney will want to put on the poster (“At least it’s not as bad as Transformers”), but it’s honestly the best this movie is gonna get from me, so it can take it or leave. I honestly cannot recommend seeing it in theaters considering how much of a slog it is to get through this mess, nor can I really even recommend it once it hits home release. If you’re inclined to experience each one of these, whether in the theater or at home, well I’m not gonna stop you. It’s not a new low for the franchise, but it’s damn near the bottom of what we’ve come to expect from these movies, so I guess take that for what it’s worth. Now if they DO decide to make a sequel, they better run into the Straw Hat Pirates because honestly, where the hell else can this series go at this point?