Thursday, June 15, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)


Pirate's life...


The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are quite the anomaly when it comes to Hollywood franchise filmmaking.  The first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, was an outrageous gamble in 2003.  It was a rousing success the likes no one could have predicted, partly due to Johnny Depp's amazing turn as Jack Sparrow.  The next two films, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, were produced back to back as an extremely ambitious and costly set, turning Pirates into a trilogy that could rival Star Wars or Lord of the Rings (financially anyway).   The Pirates trilogy, with Sparrow as its mascot, could have ended right there and been Disney's to milk through merchandising alone for all eternity.  Then On Stranger Tides came along and it all felt so... stale.  The spontaneity of Jack Sparrow was all but gone, the script doubled-down on cliches, and there was no creative spark.  It feels like nowadays, some people at Disney get together and say, "Hey, that new Pirates movie made a lot of money, wanna make another one?"  "Yeah! But not right now.  How about in a few years when we're bored?" We now have a series of five films that has no clear direction, and Dead Men Tell No Tales suffers for it.


This is my fate...


Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of William and Elizabeth Turner, seeks the Trident of Poseidon in order to free his father from the Dutchman's curse.  He seeks the help of the infamous pirate Jack Sparrow (Depp), but tries in vain for nine years.  Now a young man working on a Navy warship, he encounters the undead pirate Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), who also seeks Sparrow, albeit for purposes of revenge.  Meanwhile, in Saint Martin, a young woman named Carina (Kaya Scodelario) is being accused of witchcraft due to her interest and knowledge of astronomy (a running joke that gets old fast).  The paths of Carina, Henry, and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) all eventually cross, each of them seeking the Trident for their own reasons.  In the middle of all this is Jack Sparrow himself, a drunk, dysfunctional mess who can't pull off a decent bank robbery or hold down a small crew.


Tell him death will come straight for him...


The film begins rather strongly, starting from Henry's vantage point as he promises his father that he'll free him from the curse that we as the audience have been waiting (without much vigor) to get some closure on.  This is all well-intentioned, and had it been the focus, Dead Men Tell No Tales might have been much stronger.  The villains in the Pirates franchise are often striking and memorable, and the same is true in this case; I love everything about Captain Salazar and his ghost crew, who are visually interesting and have a solid backstory.  Javier Bardem is excellent in the role, and I'd go so far as to call his flashback story the best scene of the film.  Digitally de-aged Johnny Depp feels like Jack Sparrow again, and it's such a breath of fresh air.  Between the special effects and the location shooting, this is a really good-looking movie.  There are noticeable moments with CG effects, but there are enough gorgeous sets and prosthetics to make up for it.


What a horrible way to live...


What the film lacks most of all are the two things it needs to be successful: a dark atmosphere, but good comedy to balance it out.  In this regard, the first Pirates film is the only one in the franchise to achieve it effortlessly, but some of the jokes in Dead Men Tell No Tales are just painful.  Depp's not given good material to work with, but he plays everything too goofy and slurry.  It's as though he's doing a Jack Sparrow impression, not embodying the character.  There are expensive looking set-pieces abound that all have the potential to be really funny, and the actors are just not selling it.  Speaking of which, a romance is shoehorned in here between Carina and Henry, and the actors have no chemistry at all.  Everything to do with Barbossa is forced, including a relationship twist that is rushed and pointless.  It seems that at every turn, the film disappoints on a narrative level (save for the epilogue perhaps).


You are my treasure...


The action is big, loud, and dumb, but it's at least competent.  There are some visual gags that work in spite of their silliness (Jack swinging around on a guillotine as the blade repeatedly approaches his neck) and the climax takes place in an underwater chasm that just looks plain beautiful.  It's bloodless and awkwardly toned down at points (Salazar kills an unfathomable amount of pirates, but it's mostly offscreen), which hurts the sense of terror and genuine stakes.  At least the music puts the original Pirates of the Caribbean score to good use, showing up most modern blockbusters and their unmemorable, bland background music.  All of this is unfortunately meaningless if the script lets it down, which it does.  The overabundance of characters, bland romance, barrage of unfunny jokes, and tonal dissonance all add up to a film with a distinct lack of heart.


We should be allies...


It may seem like I expect too much out of a film based on a theme park ride, but Disney can do much better than this.  I say get Gore Verbinski back to direct one more of these monstrosities and then kill it.  Get good writers that have some affinity for the characters, and have some fun making a straight-up pirate movie.  Why all the needless mythology?  Just let the pirates be pirates and give them a good adventure.  The day that happens is far off I'm afraid, and unfortunately what we have in the meantime isn't very satisfying.


4/10