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aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge

D: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg / 129m

Cast: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Angus Barnett, Martin Klebba, Adam Brown, Giles New, Lewis McGowan, Orlando Bloom, Paul McCartney

Six years after Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides appeared to have brought the franchise to an end, Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer have resurrected Captain Jack Sparrow for one more round of hijinks on the high seas. This movie and a potential sixth in the series were being planned even before On Stranger Tides was released, but production delays and script problems kept Dead Men Tell No Tales from our screens until now. It’s debatable that anyone outside of the cast and crew and studio bosses were enthusiastic about the idea of a fifth movie, and it’s doubtful that even die-hard fans were expecting too much from it, but the series has made a lot of money since it began back in 2003 – over $3.7 billion before this installment – so perhaps another entry shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

Dead Men Tell No Tales harks back to the simpler, more effective pleasures found in the series’ first movie, Curse of the Black Pearl, and attempts to forget the bloated excesses of the previous two installments by imitating much of what made that movie so successful. However, this approach hasn’t meant a return to form, but instead has stopped the rot. You can argue that this is a better movie than On Stranger Tides, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but both as a stand-alone entry and the continuation of a series that provides links to its predecessors in an ongoing game of Guess-the-Reference, number five in the series is still found wanting.

For a start, there’s the plot, a mish-mash of ideas that are borne out of the idea that hidden somewhere at sea is the Trident of Poseidon, and that this is the cure for all the curses of the sea. At the start of the movie, a young Henry Turner (McGowan) confronts his father, Will (Bloom), and tells him of his plan to find the Trident and free him from his fate as the Flying Dutchman. Will believes the Trident can’t be found, but Henry is determined. Nine years later, Henry is now a young man (Thwaites), and still searching for the Trident, as is astronomer Carina Smyth (Scodelario). She has a book that gives clues to the Trident’s whereabouts, but has been condemned by the British as a witch. Henry, meanwhile, has encountered the ghost of Captain Salazar (Bardem) who is seeking revenge on Captain Jack Sparrow for his supernatural existence. On the island of St Martin, Henry, Carina and Jack all come together and make sail for the unmarked island that can’t be navigated to, closely followed by Salazar and interested party Barbossa (Rush).

There’s more – much more – and therein lies one of the movie’s biggest problems: it takes what should be a fairly straightforward idea and twists it so far out of shape that every attempt to straighten it out merely serves to make it less and less, and less, straightforward. The plot becomes buried under layer after layer of unnecessary twists and turns and double crosses and “clever” subterfuges. The characters’ individual storylines become convoluted and unwieldy, with one relationship forged out of nothing, and as for any character development, that’s been ignored in favour of getting everyone from point A to point B with a minimum of effort or fuss. For a movie that was delayed partly because of script problems, it makes you wonder just how bad scribe Jeff Nathanson’s original screenplay really was (or if Johnny Depp’s widely credited contributions are to blame instead).

Another problem lies with the character of Jack Sparrow himself. Five movies in and it’s clear that the character has run out of steam both dramatically and comedically. He’s a pale shadow of his former self, no longer as witty as he once was, or retaining the skewed moral compass he once had, and halfway to being a lampoon. And for the most part Depp is going through the motions, offering brief glimpses of the portrayal that made such an impact fourteen years ago, but unable to rekindle the past glories that came with that portrayal. The usual grinning and grimacing are there but that’s the point: it’s exactly the same grinning and grimacing we’ve already seen four times before. When your main character becomes more and more of a caricature with every outing, then it’s time to really shake things up and do something different.

But doing something different – anything different – isn’t part of the movie’s agenda. Instead, newcomers Rønning and Sandberg cleave to the look and feel of the first movie, but are hamstrung by having little in the way of dramatic meat to work with, and a preponderance of comedic moments that are self-referential and which largely fall flat. Yes, there are moments where you’ll smile and maybe chuckle to yourself, but outright laughs are as rare as someone in Salazar’s crew having a complete body. The various action set pieces offer the occasional frisson, but again there’s very little that holds the attention or seems fresh by design or in execution. A bank heist early on plays like a low-budget version of the vault robbery from Fast Five (2011), while the finale steals its set up from the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956).

On the acting front, returnees Rush, McNally, Klebba, Graham, Barnett, New, and Bloom do what they need to do within the confines of the script, while newcomers Bardem, Thwaites, Scodelario, Farahani (as a thinly disguised version of Naomie Harris’s Calypso), and Wenham face exactly the same problem. When an actor of the calibre of Javier Bardem can’t manage to make a character such as Salazar even occasionally memorable then there’s definitely something wrong going on. And just when you thought there wasn’t a rock star who could give a worse performance than Keith Richards in a Pirates movie, up pops Paul McCartney as Jack’s Uncle Jack, an appearance that makes you pray he doesn’t pop up again.

In essence, this is a movie (and a fourth sequel to boot) that atones for the appalling nature of its immediate predecessor, but which in doing so, defaults to being predictable and safe. This makes it a movie that offers few rewards for its fans, and even fewer rewards for anyone coming to the franchise for the first time. A post credits scene sets up a sixth movie which looks set to bring back another character from the series’ past, but if it does, then it will have to be a vast improvement on this entry, and perhaps require a complete rethink of a franchise that has gone astray and which shows no immediate signs of finding its way back.

Rating: 4/10 – impressive CGI and beautiful locations are about the best things in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, but even they aren’t good enough to rescue a movie that opts for mediocre as a first choice, and is only fitfully entertaining; a tiptoe in the right direction for the franchise but still an underwhelming experience for anyone who remembers the glory days of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.