Like Captain Jack, the movie is a doting, doddering fool deprived of the eccentric magnetism.
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise stretched for so long that before watching Dead Men Tell No Tales, fans might’ve forgotten about the fourth movie, On Stranger Tides. Still, Curse of the Black Pearl came out 14 years ago, and boy, was it an astonishingly idiosyncratic take on scallywags and scoundrels of the high sea! With charming lead characters (mostly Jack Sparrow played by Johnny Depp in his prime), swashbuckling adventures, a huge number of extras on memorable set pieces, and wacky re-imagination of mythologies, the movie became a commercial success. It paved the way for three sequels, each of which suffered from diminishing returns but nevertheless won big at the box office. On this ground (or ocean surface?), Dead Men continued to haul theatergoers on board and set sail into the visually fantastical but too familiar Caribbean waters.
The story opens with a young Henry (Lewis McGowan) on his way to see his father Will Turner—Orlando Bloom reprised the role. Fascinated by the mythical Trident of Poseidon, the boy is eager to save Will from the curse of helming The Flying Dutchman, but Will shoos him away, affirming that the Trident is not real. This opening sets forth the coming journey; the mutual motivation for all parties is still an unobtainable artifact or entity pulled out of context and altered for the storylines (much like Davy Jones’ Locker, Kraken, and the goddess Calypso). Dead Men intended to welcome fans with a rehashed idea, but its outcome is not what The Force Awakens achieved.
Nine years later, Henry—now a grown man working on a British Navy ship—meets Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), another sea ghost from Jack Sparrow’s not-so-diverse rogue gallery, in the Devil’s Triangle. Behind a ghoulish appearance with floating hanks of hair, the Oscar-winning actor did his best to emanate this haunting spirit to impose level-headed ruthlessness. Constantly implying he only kills pirates, Salazar executes his captives in cold blood but is still open to better offers. He definitely has a grudge against Jack, but his crew is cursed and stuck in the Triangle. After a ridiculous decision from Jack Sparrow, they are freed to roam on a ship that moves like a living creature and swallows feeble obstacles in its sight. Predictably, Salazar’s goons are disfigured spectral warriors, now with incorporeal, floating body parts instead of fleshy, marine-like. However, the generic backstory can’t achieve much more than making the audience feel a little sympathetic for this ex-anti-hero character.
Pirates movies couldn’t stay too dark and dull, so there’s at once a high-speed heist scene involving a safe and a stagecoach—a blatant rip-off from Fast Five’s last act. The sequence breaks many laws of physics to assert a new level of absurdity. And the rest of the movie has absurdity by abundances.
Here, Jack Sparrow, or Captain Jack Sparrow if you will, who appears a bit late for his craving fans, comes off very disappointing. It’s easy to say the character has been responsible for most of the franchise’s success, but now we don’t see any beloved wisecracking swashbuckler on screen. Donning the dreadlocks and Kohl makeup once again—but without his pants—Depp played his famous character only to collect the next paycheck after recent failed works. Deprived of the Bugs Bunny/Pepé Le Pew essence, he is no more than an afterimage. It is as if Terry Rossio, who co-wrote the first four movies, and new writer Jeff Nathanson were overconfident about Depp’s star power; the script saved the worst jokes for him. One of the few times his character is bearable belongs to the flashback where his younger self (a digitally de-aged Depp face on young actor Anthony De La Torre) outwitted Salazar in a pleasing U-turn sequence. There’s a profound redeeming quality in his attachment with the Black Pearl, but Jack wanders around the shots like a drunk gadfly. This screenplay also tries to develop his character arc, but it’s best not to.
In Saint Martin, we also meet Carina (Kaya Scodelario), a young woman of science being called a witch—sometimes under the lecherous male gaze—because she’s smarter than the simpletons. As an orphan, Carina also wants to find the trident because her father left her a map, so the map is a memorabilia to connect between Carina’s inclination to science and her wish for a family reunion.
Though Thwaites and Scodelario gave better performances than Depp, their romance is weak, as if they have to be together for being the only two attractive people amidst smelly pirates. The couple should’ve been the foils against Jack’s zany manners, but since Jack is not himself anymore, Henry and Carina are reduced to archetypes. Without decent character writing, Dead Men’s thin yet convoluted plot unfolds exhaustingly with slapdash, meaningless fillers. Even the double-cross—a routine we are trained to expect—loses its entertaining intensity because the authority is completely sidelined.
Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Bandidas, Kon-Tiki) co-directed the movie and brought more diverse colorization to the ocean of Caribbean. Nonsensical Hollywood explosions are a default, and with new cinematographer Paul Cameron (Westworld), the Norwegian duo painted bright, gorgeous sceneries as the background for the muted-colored warships. Rounded off by the new score from Geoff Zanelli (Hans Zimmer’s protégé), the battles maintain most of the needed wondrous epicness and visual accessibility.
But apart from a fun scene with the twirling guillotine (the only time we see good old Sparrow), the constant slapstick is more interpersonal and less interactive with the promising set pieces, hence mediocre jokes. Though Gore Verbinski’s artistic craft persists in the costumes, make-up, and prosthetics to give a sense of grit and sweatiness under the Caribbean wind, the movie doesn’t breathe as robustly as its first three predecessors did. The world of Caribbean needs a careful touch of humorous crossings between people from different walks of life.
As usual,* Dead Men*’s dialogues are short bursts of sarcastic remarks and dumb in-jokes from Jack’s crew, minus the rum. Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally), Scrum (Stephen Graham), and Marty (Martin Klebba) return to wash the Pearl’s deck, but without Pintel and Ragetti—Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook refused to join—comedic grooves can’t be the same. Captain Hector Barbossa, now controlling the Queen Anne’s Revenge and the Sword of Triton, is the top dog. The script, to play up Salazar as the threat, didn’t give Geoffrey Rush a chance to be the brazen, power-hungry pirate we loved. Little of his peculiar, persuasive prowess remains, ceding to his soft humanity. The twist in his character is out of left field and not that powerful, emotionally.
Dead Men attends to family bonds and the reunion of loved ones after long time and distance in different realms, but its direction is far from effective. Ironically, Henry Turner speaks to Jack and to fans alike: “It can’t be. I spent years, looking for… this?” Like Captain Jack, Pirates of the Caribbean is a doting, doddering fool deprived of the eccentric magnetism. Still, this movie and its post-credit scene hinted at the future of the franchise, where the dead never stay dead. Yes, dead men tell no tales, but even if they and the living ones did, their tales wouldn’t be worth the effort.
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