Film Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
14 years ago Disney released what I will definitively name the best movie in an incredibly specific and narrow genre. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is the best movie based on an amusement park ride. There were many factors in 2003 that made that film such a success: fun staging of supernatural images, simply one of the catchiest music film scores of the 21st century, and the surprising fact that it buckled some swashes that at the time no one was aware we were all longing to be buckled. That first movie was an energetic and fun surprise elevating what was obviously Disney cashing in on a license they clearly owned. That movie was much better than it had any right to be. But let us not dismiss what is the most important factor in that film: Johnny Depp.
Depp started as a teen heartthrob on TV’s 21 Jump Street which catapulted him to the front of Tiger Beat and Teen Beat magazine covers all over the country. So when his film career started in films like Edward Scissorhands, Benny and Joon, and Cry Baby, we were all struck by the fact that the pretty boy was also a talented actor. He then became a leading man of incredible interest. Whether playing Hunter S. Thompson or JM Barrie or Donnie Brasco or many others, he was one to watch. Always interesting, always different, really amongst the best mainstream Hollywood had to offer. However, in recent years his acting profile has paralleled his Donnie Brasco co-star Al Pacino’s career in that they both are kind of a parody of their former selves. Often digging into a bag of tricks instead of creating full fledged characters, we can see the acting now. At this point we recognize the artifice and for many it gets tiring.
In Depp’s case, no role is more subject to this use of affectation than Captain Jack Sparrow. This Keith Richards inspired creation of a feckless drunken pirate whom everyone wants to follow or kill was fresh and fun at first. His introduction on screen had heroic music as he straddled the mast of a sinking ship. He slurs his words, leers at women, and is as likely to follow rum as he is was to follow his goal. Captain Jack was a truly entertaining creature. And yet, much as the movies themselves, it’s a creation with diminishing returns. As these Pirate movies have gone one, each film has been less worth watching than the one before. All of them, even the first, are WAY too long. I’m convinced they could all lose half an hour each and be the better for it.
Which brings us to the latest, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. I would actually argue this movie may be better than at least the 4th installment of the series (To tell the truth, I have trouble remembering much of anything about Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides other than it was a disappointing waste of Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz). In fact, the first half of Dead Men Tell No Tales mostly works. The story concerns a young sailor played by Not Orlando Bloom (Brenton Thwaites) who is looking to free his father Will Turner from the curse inflicted on him in the third film. He runs afoul of the undead Captain Salazar (a whispering Javier Bardem whose character design is scarier than the character itself) who has a grudge against Captain Jack. So the young sailor is joined by Not Keira Knightly (Kaya Scodelario) on a quest to find Jack and the Trident of Poseidon so they can break all the curses in the world.
This is actually my main problem with almost all of the plots of these movies. They seem to make up the rules as they go along. The mythology of any of them is so hard to follow, with characters that come back from the dead on a whim or mystical objects whose functions seem to vary based upon what scene they’re in or how many places they have to go to do some convoluted thing. It’s hard to get invested in the plot because it’s all over the place.
My interest level is much higher in all of these movies when the slightly more grounded action takes place. And early on in this film there is some fun business concerning Jack’s crew trying to steal a vault from the highest profile bank in the Caribbean. It ends up with a prolonged chase involving horses and a runaway building in tow while 3 different race after it. When there is actual sword fighting and stunt based adventure, these movies are a hoot. It’s later on when it all devolves into CGI ships fighting each other on a CGI ocean while swirling around a CGI landscape with little regard to physics that audience interest falters. It looks neat, but there are no stakes to the action.
The good: despite being old hat, Captain Jack is still a funny character that still has funny dialogue and can still hold attention. We all recognize it as more artifice than art at this point, but funny is funny. Also, the look of Salazar’s undead crew with large portions of their bodies missing is a fun visual idea. Geoffrey Rush is at least watchable, though without much memorable to do. And the music, as always, still an ear worm. Also, the cameo with Paul McCartney is genuinely hilarious.
The bad: the new young couple won’t make you forget Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan anytime soon. If this is the last outing of this franchise as has been rumored, it would’ve been nice to get cameos from the likes of Jonathan Pryce or some of the more notable members of Jack’s crew (there isn’t a fake eyeball anywhere to be seen here). And the impenetrable exposition, yikes. There are scenes where plot is just told instead of shown. Or if it is shown, as in the flashback to Salazar’s origin story, it is laid out in a pedestrian manner.
Look, I had fun watching this mostly. But even it being the shortest movie in the series, it’s still too long and I found my mind wandering. The special effects are more effects than special. And there is a post credits scene that either opens the door for another movie or will leave a frustratingly vague dangling plot thread for eternity. This may be worth watching once, but do yourself a favor and find a budget matinee at least.