Directed By: Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg
Release Date: May 26, 2017
Starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem, Kaya Scodelario, Brenton Thwaites
Back in the summer of 2003, my father and I went one day to go see two movies back to back: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which I had been excited for at the time due to my love of its two predecessors, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a film neither of us had any expectations for that had come out the week before T3. To this day, I haven't forgotten our mutual surprise and elation on the way out about just how good Pirates turned out to be, with T3 almost an afterthought, and no matter how far Disney has gone (and will go) to stretch out the franchise, nothing will dilute the sheer entertainment value of director Gore Verbinski's original work.
In the years that followed, three sequels followed: Dead Man's Chest in 2006 and At World's End in 2007, both directed by Verbinski, and On Stranger Tides in 2011, which saw Rob Marshall (Chicago) take the reins of a film that featured only a handful of returning cast members. Each sequel was immediately faced with criticism to varying degrees, and rightfully so, but even for their excessive narrative bloat, I still enjoy Dead Man's Chest and At World's End for their over-the-top grandiosity, even if they pale in comparison to the first film. The only entry I've truly hated was On Stranger Tides, a film so depressingly mediocre that it effectively killed my enthusiasm to see anymore films out of the franchise.
It's been six years since that film came out, and nearly 15 since this whole franchise started, and there's little we haven't already seen. We've seen characters battling on a water wheel as it rolls through a jungle and a naval battle set in the mouth of a giant whirlpool. We've seen Krakens and tentacled villains and undead pirates (and an undead monkey!) and sea goddesses. We've seen love stories and double crosses and triple crosses and Jack Sparrow wisecracking his way to victory. In short, it feels like we've seen it all at this point, which made my personal trepidation about Dead Men Tell No Tales - the latest entry in the series - pretty high ever since it was announced, especially in a post-Tides world where it seemed like the franchise was going to run the risk of simply surviving on the goodwill left over from Verbinski's films.
Dead Men picks up several years after Tides, with Jack Sparrow still carrying around the bottle containing his beloved Black Pearl and incredibly down on his luck. What few crew he has left by his side in his life - including familiar faces like Gibbs (Kevin McNally), Scrum (Stephen Graham), and Marty (Martin Klebba) - inevitably find themselves abandoning Jack after a staggeringly unsuccessful job, leaving Jack to reach his lowest point in an act that inadvertently frees Javier Bardem's pirate-hating Captain Salazar and his crew, members of the Spanish Navy who have spent years trapped as ghosts in the Devil's Triangle thanks to Jack, who have one goal: To make Jack pay for what he did to them.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Pirates movie without a number of other threads, and caught up in all of this are Brenton Thwaites' Henry Turner, son of the original trilogy's William Turner and Elizabeth Swann, and Kaya Scodelario's Carina Smyth, an astronomer accused of being a witch, both of whom are looking to find Poseidon's trident - this entry's MacGuffin that allows its wielder to have complete control of the sea - for their own purposes, as well as Geoffrey Rush's Captain Barbossa, who has been living the high life ever since becoming the captain of the Queen Anne's Revenge in Tides and, fittingly, decides to join the quest to claim the trident for himself.
For the most part, Dead Men feels less like a continuation of where Tides left the series - outside of the unavoidable things, like Sparrow and Barbossa's different circumstances after that film's events - and more like an ode to the original trilogy. A slew of familiar faces from those three films return, big and small, that will surely delight fans, and even composer Geoff Zanelli's score often recalls old themes, including one of my personal favorites, the "One Day" love theme for Will and Elizabeth. Even further, there's a sense of closure the end of this film provides for certain story threads that have been dangling over the decade since At World's End released, and as someone who enjoys the original trilogy, I was happy to see things come together, if even for nostalgia's sake.
The film also gets what Tides got wrong right about Jack Sparrow. In the original three films, particularly the first, Jack was never really the lead; he was a supporting player first and foremost, which helped lend him an air of dangerous unpredictability that worked in the character's favor, while Elizabeth, Will, and other characters helped carry the brunt of the narrative. In Tides, Jack was pushed to the forefront, forced to carry the film almost entirely on his shoulders, which simply didn't work. Less Jack is a good thing, as he's at his best interfering with or traipsing through the stories of others, and while there's still a heavy focus on him in Dead Men - which feels unavoidable at this point considering the character's sheer global popularity - the fact that there are other characters around this time with actual stories of their own helps the film feel like it understands what worked best last decade.
As always, Depp has a lot of fun with Sparrow, even if he's a bit more of a buffoon than secret genius this time around, and there actually seems to be a spark in his performance that was missing from Tides. There are some genuinely funny moments throughout the film that take advantage of his talent as a physical performer, like a sequence involving a guillotine, and scenes like a bizarrely unnecessary impromptu wedding scene are made worth it and sold almost entirely thanks to his line delivery. There's been a noticeable (and disappointing) dumbing down of the character ever since he was introduced back in 2003, but Depp proves he can still deliver an entertaining performance nonetheless.
As for the new faces, Henry and Carina are no Will and Elizabeth, but they're leagues better than the missionary and mermaid duo forced upon audiences in Tides, with a semblance of actual personalities that could be built upon in future films. And, fortunately, Javier Bardem isn't entirely wasted here as Salazar in the way that Ian McShane was as Blackbeard in Tides, clearly relishing every second he's on screen even if the character himself is a bit underserved in the narrative. As a villain, he never comes close to hitting the heights of Barbossa - whose return here even overshadows him thanks to another solid performance by Geoffrey Rush - or Davy Jones, and it feels like half his dialogue consists of saying Jack Sparrow's name aloud, but he works within the context of the film anyway, effective while watching it despite being relatively forgettable afterwards.
Of course, what most people are going to come to a film like this for is a sense of fun and adventure, with some good action sequences to go along with the antics of Jack Sparrow. Outside of the aforementioned guillotine sequence, there's a number of pretty slick scenes that definitely entertained the audience I was with, like an opener involving an entire building being pulled by horses through a town and an attack on a rowboat by undead sharks, and thankfully the film even brings actual naval battles back to the franchise after Tides didn't feature a single one. Nothing ever quite stands out like some of the action sequences from the original trilogy here - nothing ever carries the weight of that final cave battle in Black Pearl or the sense of electric creativity like the three-way beach/water wheel fight in Dead Man's Chest, for instance - but there's something to appreciate about their simplicity and back-to-basics approach.
That said - and you may have noticed this as a recurring idea throughout this review so far - Dead Men still never reaches the heights of the original trilogy, let alone the well-oiled perfection of Black Pearl. Though the directing duo of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg and writer Jeff Nathanson, who took over scripting duties from franchise vets Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, come far closer to capturing the essence of what was once so appealing about the franchise and its potential than Rob Marshall did, they still come up short of hitting the mark. Say what you will about the first two sequels, but Gore Verbinski's visual touches alone were stellar, and despite some cool moments of its own, there's nothing in Dead Men that lives up to the precedent he set. It's beautiful, yes - who can complain about sandy beaches and lush jungles? - but there's just a spark missing that's hard to put a finger on, and that's an idea that reverberates throughout every element of the film, not just the visuals.
The longer this franchise goes on, the more clear it becomes that The Curse of the Black Pearl truly was lightning in a bottle. With each new sequel, the series becomes less and less fresh; after all, as I mentioned earlier, once we've seen undead pirates and Krakens, what's so great about vengeful ghosts? However, this is a franchise that does still have potential, whether through the inevitable sequel - yes, there’s a post-credits scene that tees one up - or a reboot somewhere down the line, to truly return to form with a creative team not forced to fixate on spectacle first, story second.
As it stands, Dead Men Tell No Tales at least attempts said return to form compared to On Stranger Tides even if it isn't completely successful in doing so, and that counts for something. What it lacks in delivering something new to the franchise to truly justify its existence beyond its ability to print money for Disney it makes up for in simply being fun. If you've liked all the films up to this point, faults and all, you won't be let down, and if you were let down by On Stranger Tides, it wouldn't hurt to give Dead Men a chance. I went in expecting to be thoroughly disappointed (again) and came out pleasantly surprised, and sometimes there's just nothing wrong with sitting back on a summer day to go on an imperfect but entertaining adventure with characters we've known for years.
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