PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: SALAZAR’S REVENGE (DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES) – a review by JJ Heaton

Starring: Johnny Depp (Black Mass), Javier Bardem (Skyfall), Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech), Brenton Thwaites (Gods of Egypt), Kaya Scodelario (The Maze Runner)

Directors: Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki)

Writer: Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can)

Runtime: 2 hours 9 minutes

Release Date: 25 May (UK), 26 May (US)

Yes, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is still a thing. To think that The Curse of the Black Pearl was that film no one expected to be good but turned out great, and now all the sequels are films everyone hopes to be good but never quite are. Dead Man’s Chest was decent but only barely, At World’s End is a bloated and incomprehensible mess, and On Stranger Tides pretty much no one even remembers. But they’ve all been massively successful regardless, and so a fifth film has finally sailed its way into theatres. Can it redeem the franchise back to its brief moment of glory, or is it going to sink to the depths of our subconscious like most of these movies have?

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Salazar’s Revenge (as it is called in Europe for some reason, instead of the much less generic Dead Men Tell No Tales) thankfully cuts down on a lot of the needlessly complex storylines going on in the other Pirates sequels, bringing it back to a more streamlined premise of “let’s all go find the MacGuffin”. That doesn’t mean the film has completely stripped the fat, as the film is still a tad too long with pointless characters and plot cul-de-sacs that contribute nothing, but it’s at least simple enough to follow from beginning to end. The problem is what’s left is pretty much a grab bag of every trope of this franchise with very little new material added on. The story down to the structural level is a rehash of The Curse of the Black Pearl, but not in that knowing homage way like The Force Awakens did. It just feels like a vain attempt to recapture the magic of the first film by essentially repeating it with a new coat of paint. But even though for the most part these attempts at nostalgia fall flat, there is the occasional character moment that works, and the film concludes in a way that feels like an appropriate end to the franchise. It’s perhaps not the best executed, but it at least has a sense of conclusiveness to it…at least until the post-credits scene hinting at a potential sixth film that will once again go back to the rotting well of ideas instead of generating new ones. Sigh.

Remember when Jack Sparrow was a charming and likable character, one so original and well-performed that Johnny Depp actually got an Oscar nomination for it? Fourteen years later, the character has grown tired and, other than his amusing entrance into the film, so clearly has Depp considering how much he is going through the motions here. After failing to work as a lead in On Stranger Tides (because Sparrow was never meant to be a lead; he’s a wildcard character after all), the fifth film wisely lets the other characters progress the plot whilst Depp fools around in the background. However, instead of being far too prominent, now Sparrow lacks any real purpose other than being the centre of the villain’s motivation; without that, you could write him out of the film with little difficulty. There’s an attempt to flesh out Sparrow’s history with a flashback, but it doesn’t establish anything more important than how he got his name and outfit (yes, his costume requires a back story!) Javier Bardem is fine enough as Salazar, but he’s barely any different from any of the other antagonists of the franchise; he’s yet another undead villain with a vendetta against Sparrow out to find the MacGuffin and break his curse. His motivation for hunting down Sparrow is only a hair above nebulous, and Depp and him barely share any screen time until the third act.

In terms of fresh faces, Brenton Thwaites somehow manages to be even more of an uninteresting leading man than Sam Claflin in On Stranger Tides, having an understandable but underdeveloped motivation and a frustrating lack of personality. Despite supposedly being the anchor of the story, he’s such a non-presence that he constantly ends up taking a back seat to the far more interesting Kaya Scodelario. Sure, her relationship with Thwaites is forced and the whole “a woman scientist?” routine is a gag that runs out of steam fast, but Scodelario feels like she is genuinely putting in a performance and she’s far more convincing doing the “woman in a man’s world” thing than Keira Knightley ever did; I’d honestly rather see her continuing adventures than Sparrow’s at this point. The only other cast member who still feels like they’re trying is Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa and he is having a ball as usual. He comes into the story a little too late and an interesting relationship he sparks up with Scodelario is way too underdeveloped to fully impact, but by the end you’ll be glad he was there to remind you of the good old days.

Even in their most convoluted moments, the Pirates series has delivered a lot of memorable action sequences and the fifth instalment is no exception. There are a lot of the usual exchanges of swords and cannonballs, but it feels like all the inventiveness of the movie went into creating some impressive set pieces. The first big action sequence plays like a pirate version of the climax of Fast Five, and as ridiculous as that sounds it’s a well-executed mix of action and comedy that get the film going after a dull prologue. From there, it only gets crazier. There’s a ship that basically eats other ships, a ship’s figurehead that comes to life, the sea splitting Ten Commandments-style, and then there’s ghost sharks; you can’t accuse a movie of being completely uninventive when it has ghost sharks in it. As played-out as the concept of Salazar and his undead crew is, they are at least backed up by some pretty cool designs; the way pieces of them float in the air around them and how Salazar’s hair moves like he’s underwater are nice visual touches. A pity then that the CGI is never particularly convincing; even when compared to the skeletons from the first movie, they look fake. Hans Zimmer unfortunately doesn’t return to score the film, but Geoff Zanelli does a decent enough job picking up his recognisable tunes and giving them a new spin.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge ultimately sits in the middle of the pack in this franchise, learning from some of the mistakes of its forbearers but certainly not enough of them. What little magic it does manage to recapture of the original film is outweighed by what it inferiorly copies and otherwise fails to innovate the tired formula in any important way. It does nothing incredibly poorly by any means and it’s got enough solid moments to be entertaining whilst you watch it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve forgotten most of what happened in it by this time next week. I sincerely hope they decide to discontinue the series from here and leave whilst they still have a semblance of dignity, because what they’re hinting at for the next instalment honestly feels more like a threat than a promise.

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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