“Find Jack Sparrow for me and relay a message, from Captain Salazar. Tell him, death will come straight for him.” ~ Salazar
“We are to be allies.” ~ Henry Turner
“Considering where your left hand is, I’d say we’re more than that!” ~ Carina Smyth
“I have heard stories of a mighty Spanish captain who sunk and killed thousands of men.” ~ Hector Barbossa
“Guillotine? Sounds French. I love the French!” ~ Jack Sparrow
Disney’s now long running Pirates Of The Caribbean series returns to theatres with a fifth film, Dead Men Tell No Tales, which treads some familiar ground (well, familiar waters) with the drunken pirate, the young lovers, and the cranky villain who just can’t let go of a grudge. If you think you’ve seen this film before, you have, because that’s pretty much been the status quo of the previous four movies in the series. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush return once more to reprise their roles, while the villain’s role is given over to an actor who’s in danger of becoming typecast for playing villains, Javier Bardem.
We meet the ten year old Henry Turner (Lewis McGowan) early in the film. The son of Will and Elizabeth Turner (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, returning to reprise their roles in cameo appearances), Henry seeks to free his sea faring father from the curse that binds him to the Flying Dutchman ship, and meets him for the first time. Will is touched, but doesn’t believe it’s possible to lift the curse, telling his son to leave and never return. Nine years later, Henry is in the Royal Navy, now played by Brenton Thwaites, and his ship comes under attack by a ghostly ship in a place called the Devil’s Triangle. The ship is captained by the seriously grouchy Captain Salazar (Bardem), who leaves Henry alive to send a message to someone he has a particular dislike for.
That person, of course, is Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), who’s been busy robbing and plundering with his crew. Sparrow’s luck seems to run out, and he finds himself about to be executed in the company of a young woman sentenced to die for witchcraft, Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), who’s not a witch but more of a scientist. It doesn’t take long for Sparrow, Henry, and Carina to all get caught up in the same over the top quest for a relic (another holdover from the previous film, these movies always have some treasure or object of desire), the Trident of Poseidon, which will supposedly grant its possessor control over the seas.
The screenplay comes from Jeff Nathanson, who had a hand in film scripts like Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, and Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. The film was in development hell for years on end- it’s been six years since the last instalment. This time out feels all too familiar- as mentioned earlier, there are common motifs in this franchise, from the drunken pirate bumbling his way through a supernaturally tinged adventure, the young star crossed lovers, the cranky antagonist, the oddball supporting characters and sheer preposterousness of the plotline.
Original series director Gore Verbinski, who helmed the first three films and then went on to that disaster known as The Lone Ranger, is absent again, as is Rob Marshall, who directed On Stranger Tides. In their place is a pair of directors, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg. Most of their filming was done on location and sound stages in Australia, while series producer (and perennial expert in bombast) Jerry Bruckheimer stayed on in that role. The film moves along through plot holes and preposterousness with breathless abandon, and the directors pace it that way. There are times, though, when the visual style can be a bit murky, such as night scenes (I suggest avoiding this in 3D, unlike the only screening that I could get to; I expect 3D winds up making things all the more murky. There’s some spectacular CGI along the way- the ghostly look of Salazar, his ship and crew, for instance, or the look of the previously established Flying Dutchman. The CGI goes into overtime, however, for the climactic sequences, and a parting of the seas that puts The Ten Commandments to shame.
What’s previously established in this series generally works, from the point of view of the crew. Set design certainly does render a look that’s vivid for pirate or Navy ships, or a Caribbean town of the era. This comes down to costume design and makeup, where pirates each in turn have a distinctive look, for instance, or civilians are dressed in a way accustomed to the era. The score, which has previously had the touch of Hans Zimmer all over it in earlier films (Zimmer produced the first score by Klaus Badelt, and composed some of the themes before taking the helm for the following films), is now taken on by Geoff Zanelli, one of Zimmer’s associates. Zanelli had a hand in some of the orchestrations of the previous films, and those films provide a springboard for his score.
The cast is a sprawling one, a good number of them British, but generally international. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley sat out the fourth instalment as their characters Will and Elizabeth Turner, the star crossed lovers who took three movies to finally get married (and then got separated by a wee bit of a curse that keeps Will permanently at sea most of the time). Both the actors and the characters seem a bit too young to be the parents of a nineteen year old son, one of those plot holes I mentioned, and their appearances here tend to lean more towards the cameo, but it’s pleasing to see them both, even as it reinforces how their characters shine more than the younger set.
That’s probably more because the younger actors in the film have roles that are somewhat underwritten and fill in the blank sorts. Brenton Thwaites is an Australian actor, playing the part of the Turner son Henry, who spends the film on a desperate quest to save his father from the curse he’s under. He plays the part with an earnest, befuddled manner (not unlike Will, who frequently seemed befuddled by the pirate captain he’d thrown his lot in with). The actor’s capable enough in the role, it just seems like the writer’s trying to essentially fit him right into the same slot as his character’s father was in the first film. The same applies with Kaya Scodolario, playing Carina. She’s essentially the Elizabeth Turner substitute of the film- the intelligent, wilful, strong minded woman who’s easily exasperated with Jack and becomes smitten with the young Henry. The story gives the character some different angles- instead of a governor’s daughter, she’s a person of science, particularly astronomy, in an era where a woman learning in higher education is unthinkable.
Kevin McNally returns once again, having had appeared in all four of the previous films as Jack’s loyal first mate Joshamee Gibbs. The character is good for comic relief and the occasional touch of wisdom; while drink seems to hit him harder than it does Jack, it doesn’t appear to have done the amount of brain damage to him that it has to Jack (has Jack Sparrow ever wondered if he might have a drinking problem?). Gibbs is a welcome continuing presence in the series, and the actor makes the most of it.
Javier Bardem is in danger at this point of typecasting himself in the role of villains. The Spanish actor is known to North American audiences for two ruthless villains in No Country For Old Men and Skyfall, and the pattern returns with his role as Captain Salazar, the antagonist of the film. His back story shows him to be a Spanish pirate hunter when he was alive, cursed with his crew into an undead state when he was tricked into sailing into the Devil’s Triangle by a young Jack Sparrow. It’s left the man rather irritable, and the actor’s take is to mix together rage and pride in his performance, a man driven by hatred and revenge. Bardem gives Salazar a ruthless and grouchy edge, leaving us wondering just how many people Jack Sparrow has earned a grudge from.
Geoffrey Rush returns once again as Hector Barbossa. The antagonist of the first film, Barbossa ended up becoming a reluctant ally to Sparrow in subsequent films. When we find him now, he’s alive and sun weathered, captain of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. He may look like he’s been out in the sun too long, but he’s been successfully building wealth since we last saw him, commanding a fleet of privateers and enjoying his riches. Barbossa has to weave between the right path and the wrong path this time out, with a hidden element in the mix for his character, and Rush gives the character the same mix of charm and unpleasant crankiness that we’ve seen before, while rising to the occasion at the most opportune of moments.
One gets the impression that Johnny Depp has a lot of fun playing Jack Sparrow. This is his fifth time playing the rogue pirate, and he’s invested in Sparrow. The character experiences no personal growth through this movie (does he ever?). Instead, Jack continues to be the eccentric drunk, stumbling his way through scenarios that might give others permanent nightmares, but from which he might only wake up with a hangover. Jack gets himself in and out of chaos and trouble haphazardly, and we’re left to wonder just how much damage all that rum’s done to his head. As always, his allegiances and motivations are constantly shifting, and his ethics are at best questionable, and Depp plays the eccentricity to the hilt. It’s a fun character to watch on screen, but would you want to know such a person in reality?
Dead Men Tell No Tales is entertaining enough, if you ignore the plot holes here and there, and the under-developed characters (Henry and Carina, I’m looking at you). It’s loud, brash, over the top, and murky at times in its tale of a seething undead naval officer with a serious grudge seeking out a drunken pirate who might have problems remembering the other fellow existed. The film claims to be the final one in the franchise, but we’ll see. After the problems of the fourth film of the franchise, it would be wise to end here. It would have been wiser to have finished with the first three. It would have been impossible for studio marketing chimps to have just left it at one incredibly memorable film with the first one and do no sequels.