Sunday, May 28, 2017
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales movie review.
Unfortunately, very rarely did those sequels ever manage to capture the same spirit of the original, and after a very convoluted and reviled third entry, the studio tried to restore the series back to basics, with the result being the underwhelming On Stranger Tides. This summer sees the fifth entry Dead Men Tell No Tales, that intends to act as a farewell to the franchise, and to Jacky boy himself. Unfortunately if this film is anything to go by, a more accurate response would be good riddance.
For years, young Henry (Brenton Thwaites) has been searching for the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), seeking his help to find the Trident of Poseidon, a relic that gives its wielder power over the sea, and the ability to break curses. However, Jack and Henry soon find themselves under the pursuit of the undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), and his crew that were cursed after a failed attempt to kill Jack in the Devil's Triangle. Reluctantly banding together, and gaining the help of new ally and Astronomer Carina (Kaya Scodelario), Captain Jack and his crew set off to locate the trident, defeat the undead Spanish captain, and save the seven seas and piracy.
One of the most common complaints of the Pirates of the Caribbean series has always been its very busy and convoluted narratives, as the films tend to lose sight of its characters in favor of the bombast and madness, as well as some jarring tonal shifts throughout. In an effort to combat this staleness, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, best known as the directors of Kon-Tiki, look back a great deal on the simplicity and lean streamlining of the original Curse of the Black Pearl, and attempt to restore the franchise back to basics. Unfortunately, this intention instead backfires tremendously. Ronning and Sandberg seemed to have taken the wrong lesson in drawing influence. A good alternate subtitle for the film may as well have been "Greatest Hits Compilation", as the film is very content on repeating numerous beats from the previous films, save for the especially reviled On Stranger Tides, whose events and continuity are kept to as bare minimum as possible.
So much of the film feels like such a carbon copy: The star-crossed lovers of an intelligent girl and a young underprivileged man, the young man enlisting the aid of Jack Sparrow for an important mission, the undead captain and his crew seeking vengeance upon Sparrow (they also can't step on land, by the way), foiled executions, those military goons from the first film back to banter and babble on some more, a mysterious witch giving help to the pirates (played here by Golshifteh Farahani), filler scenes on an island populated by strange natives, all the way down to a climax in a pit of water (similar to the Maelstrom sequence in At World's End). That's not even including callbacks, easter eggs, and all sorts of things that remind the viewer of what a great film Curse of the Black Pearl was. This makes the film look unable to stand based on the value of its own merits, which are unfortunately overshadowed by the relentless copying and fan service throughout the film, and makes it quite a chore to endure, despite being the shortest entry so far.
In large part, this is owed to the apathy of Johnny Depp. In the original film, and even to a degree in the other sequels, what made Jack such a beloved character was his balance between sinister and farcical, as he was an eccentric and deranged fellow who nevertheless still felt like a real threat who'd stab someone else in the back to save his own skin, and was always unpredictable because of this. For the most part, the sequels still kept to this same level of quality, and featured faithful reinterpretations as he grew as a character, that still felt in line with his personality.
But here, that same unpredictability and spontaneity has been so watered down that it feels like a completely different character. At this point, Jack has nowhere left to go, so we're left with a character continually spinning his wheels as he grows increasingly more comical, and less diabolical. The silliness has been played up to the degree of his Mad Hatter, whose voice he coincidentally slips into during Jack's more drunken conversations, and stumbles aimlessly as a clown well past his prime. To be fair, that is part of his point, that Jack is becoming a relic of the past, and a legend far more notorious than the actual man himself, seeing him at the lowest point of his life. This could have made for an interesting new layer for character, but Depp plays that goofiness so thick, he becomes insufferable to witness. You can tell that he doesn't want to be doing this anymore, as he's lost any of the swagger and surprise that made his performance so unique, and has devolved into one of those comedy sketch parody versions of himself.
In fact, this entire film feels like little more than a paycheck film, as it feels as if many of these actors, both new and returning, turn in some very underwhelming efforts. In addition to Jack, the one constant has always been Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa (and Kevin McNally and Jack the Monkey, but whatever), and even Rush has been neutered from the once vicious threat and scenery-chewer he always was, particularly because the film tries to give this added emotional level to him that the series has never addressed in any way, and it tries to play it as tearjerking, but instead just comes across as hokey. Brenton Thwaites is unsurprisingly the designated Orlando Bloom of the piece, because apparently we can't have a Pirates movie without one of those, and for what is supposed to be our main character feels aggressively bland and struggles to carry the movie. At least The Maze Runner's Kaya Scodelario gives her expert and roguish stargazer so much more presence and sweetness than she has on paper, but feels undermined by this annoying recurring gag where townsfolk call her a witch because of her high intelligence. Oh yes, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies really have devolved into a Monty Python sketch at this point.
In this completely underwhelming waste of leading talent, the only name that seems to come out the other end unscathed is Javier Bardem's Salazar. Bardem is an absolutely fantastic choice when it comes to villainous characters, and though this one barely scrapes the standard set by Chigurh and Silva before him, it's just a blast to see him go so unhinged and bloodcurdling with this film. He's devilish, campy, devouring the high seas scenery with gleeful abandon. He's the only member of the cast who actually looks like he's having any fun on the set, and in a truly bizarre turn, feels like more of a sympathetic character than Jack at this point. The CGI creation of him and his crew are nothing remarkable, in ways actually looking worse than the undead skeletons or Flying Dutchman crew, but the visual creativity - such as the crew having invisible gaps where missing body parts are, with some just appearing as swords and heads - do provide some pleasant diversion.
And it wouldn't be a Pirates film if it weren't for some good old-fashioned mayhem and set-pieces, but shockingly, even those are lacking. An early facepalm inducing thrill can be found when Jack's crew ride on horseback to drag a bank safe with them, but instead end up dragging the whole foundation storing the safe. The Pirates films have always had their ludicrous moments, but it's sequences like this, that actually make the Fast and Furious films look plausible by comparison, that make you say "enough is enough", because the film is so desperate and hyperbolic enough to increase the spectacle without giving thought to logic. Thankfully, the succeeding action does improve - particularly one inspired sequence with a guillotine that would have felt right at home in the Verbinski films, if not hitting quite the disastrous lows of that first big set-piece, but even they feel rehashed from some of the best set-pieces of the series, and are once again undermined by the overly goofy nature of Jack Sparrow's reactions.
Dead Men Tell No Tales is the worst, and the most stale entry in a franchise that has overstayed its welcome, and progressively gotten lazier with every new entry. What was originally a simple and old-fashioned adventure, has now devolved into a pandering and overly complicated weave of rehashed ideas, having drained this well for all that it was worth. And I do still understand even now why they keep coming back to the franchise, because it was such a sleeper hit for the Disney company, and it thrust Depp into superstardom, so you can see there's a lot of affection for what it managed to do. But if we're being realistic, we've reached the end of the road. This series needs to come to a stop, and be given a send-off.
And in the movie's defense, it looks like that's exactly what they're trying to do; that they are trying to wrap things up. The film surprisingly does a good job of tying up loose ends and bringing fan favorite elements full circle, and you could easily see the end of this movie as the definitive end of the franchise... but given its track record (as well as an obligatory post-credits clip), I still wouldn't be surprised if they go ahead with a sixth film. Just no...
** / *****