“How the mighty have fallen,” is a re-occurring thought while watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
There’s Orlando Bloom (once Legolas) hanging as a poster on a million fan girl’s walls, now trading on old hits with a minor cameo. There’s Javier Barden who played the great boogeyman Anton Chigurh ten years ago now playing yet another villain for Hollywood but one that is far less compelling than the assassin with the weird haircut. There’s producer Jerry Bruckheimer handing us another blockbuster for this American summer but hasn’t he heard superheroes are all the rage? Finally there is Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, painfully meta as his character seems to be a little sadder and down on his luck than usual.
One of the most fascinating and rebellious stars of his day, by the turn of this century Depp’s popularity had waned as his respectability grew in art house and independent hits. The original Pirates in 2003, based off a theme park ride of all things, played as a perfect blend of the his eccentric tendencies and commercial demands. Quite simply put, Depp’s truly original Jack Sparrow swanned off a sinking mast onto a pier and into our hearts. The first sequel while not as critically acclaimed was rewarded with one of the highest box office grosses of the previous decade. Yet the franchise has been one of diminishing returns creatively and in this entry we reach a new low.
Every sequel has played a variation of the original’s plot so it may not surprise that in this film there are two new young characters that the story is centred around much like Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) were once the focal point. Speaking of Will Turner, he has a son named Henry Turner played by Brenton Thwaites and he’s a chip off the old block. Young and earnest like his father once was, good in a fight and even more boring than his old man who at least got some good lines. Thwaites is joined by Kaya Scodelario playing Carina Smyth, an astronomer branded a witch for being a woman and knowing things in a time and place that doesn’t like that one bit. There’s poignancy shown, thankfully not told, about how Henry has been searching his whole life to free his father from his cursed life as a ghost amongst the sea. Kaya Scodelario too is a talented actress but neither Henry nor Carina engage like Elizabeth and Will did previously. For that matter everybody is a poor copy of someone from earlier films, David Wenham as an arrogant British naval commander is just a jerk with little personality beyond this fact. Compare that to Jack Davenport as Commodore Norrington trying to hold onto his career and girl in the earlier stories. Golshifteh Farahani as Shansa, a sea witch looks cool but never makes an impact like Naomie Harris as priestess Tia Dalma did. Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones was a far more nuanced villain with a tragic love story than Javier Bardem’s rage fuelled Captain Armando Salazar.
Still at least Bardem seems to be enjoying himself spitting out dialogue like venom even if the most recognisable parts of his character are the neat way his hair moves in open air like he’s underwater and his cool Spanish accent. Depp actually seems to be going through the motions in this film which you could never accuse the star of previously whatever the qualities of the sequels. Whether this was due to stresses outside the production would be difficult to determine but Johnny Depp remains a talent even if little of what made Jack Sparrow fresh in 2003 remains here in this performance. As Jack sits around betraying his beloved compass and searching for another rum bottle to drink he cuts a pathetic figure in a way that his shenanigans never did previously.
Story wise this could have opened up interesting avenues for the character but the best arc of the film instead is gifted to his old comrade/nemesis Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Rush brings gravitas to his now aged salty dog when he says lines like “I’m a pirate.” knowing such conviction could be his death sentence. It would have been interesting to see the developments of Barbossa happen with Sparrow instead but for obvious reasons they were not.
There is a moment at the beginning of the third act when the film becomes more engaging, Barbossa and Sparrow spar verbally well off one another, some jokes land during a group debate and a key reveal brings some depth to a couple of relationships. Sadly what follows in terms of action scenes are tremendously disappointing. There are no real sword fights in this swashbuckler; the finale is dimly lit and hard to make out while poor sound editing undermines key attempts at pathos.
Budgeted at $230 million dollars this is an unforgivable sin committed either by the cinema chain running this screening or more worryingly Disney studios themselves pushing this into release where people will pay good money for tickets. Too much CGI and clear cut aways to stuntmen rob the film of any spectacle or excitement with poorly framed shots and editing compounding the problem. More is the pity when some really good shots show how inventively designed and menacing Captain Salazar and his crew are.
In 2003 at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, as Johnny Depp swam away to the Black Pearl (making a grand return here) I hoped for inevitable sequels. Now I choose to remember him as he was in that moment, triumphant and on his way to new possibilities. For Johnny Depp, even if not necessarily for Captain Jack Sparrow, I still believe that is so.
Directors: Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg
Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson
Cast: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scoldelario, Kevin McNally and Geoffrey Rush.
Runtime: 129 mins
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Swashbuckler
Review by Lloyd Marken
** 2/4 Stars