Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Kaya Scodelario
Directors: Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg
Running Time: 129 mins
Synopsis: Once again bumbling drunkard Capt. Jack Sparrow is thrust into an adventure to save his own skin when feared Pirate hunter Captain Salazar returns from the dead to exact his revenge after Jack cursed him. To save himself he must find the fabled Trident of Poseidon, using the assistance of a young Naval man, a headstrong astronomer and old friend Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who all want the Trident for their own reasons.
Pirates of the Caribbean should never have had a sequel and especially not in multiples. Storming onto screens way back in 2003, it was that rare blockbuster. Unexpected, truly family friendly and one that increased its box office takings week in week out. In a world of massive opening weekends followed by drastic second week drops here was one that steadily grew as word spread of just how much fun it was. And what fun. Classically framed with its swashbuckling tone, central romance and oddball characters but given new life due to a supernatural twist and a screen shattering performance from cinematic chameleon Johnny Depp. Unfortunately Disney saw $ signs and subsequently produced 3 further films of diminishing quality. The concept certainly lent itself to further adventures but in a staggering misplacement of judgement the films became bloated with convoluted storylines, complicated set-pieces and worst of all promotion of Sparrow from supporting player to lead. Similar to the Joker in Dark Knight Jack works better as a performance hurricane, swooping in at key moments to shake things up before disappearing again. Depp’s performance is so broad and unusual that when placed front and centre it becomes just tiresome. With the fourth deeply forgettable film releasing in 2011 it appeared that Disney wanted to take some time with their next instalment and retcon it back to how it began, sadly with disappointing results.
The signs are all there that franchise newbie screenwriter Jeff Nathanson has studied the 2003 original a lot. Sparrow is still central to the story disagreeably so, but we have a mystical threat here in the form of Javier Bardem’s zombiefied Captain. A young physically capable man (Brendan Thwaites as Henry) who is so much the Orlando Bloom stand-in that he actually plays Bloom’s son. A headstrong vivacious female, the astronomer Carina, strapped into numerous breast enlarging corsets but fearlessly able to go toe to toe with the boys. We even have the bumbling appearance of the British Navy, represented by the sneering David Wenham, who play so little meaning in the overall plot that swathes of material could have been removed to no detrimental effect. It all reeks of desperation to repeat that which worked before. Sometimes this can work, what is The Force Awakens if not an affectionate retread of familiar plot beats? But Salazar’s Revenge (a far more generic title than the Dead Men Tell No Tales U.S subtitle) still winds up confused in its plot machinations and flimsy in its new characters to stick.
Incoming director duo Ronning and Sandberg were an offbeat choice, only one feature to their name, the critically successful water-based drama Kon-Tiki, and here they handle the obviously immense budget with confidence. Even delivering some inventive crowd pleasing early set-pieces, one involving a literal bank heist that wonderfully eschews CGI for massive set work and another concerning a public execution dissolving into a spinning guillotine gag that is just delightful. But despite those early flashes of personality there is little to be seen as events escalate. The first two sequels were hopelessly bloated and yet director Gore Verbinski still managed to deliver some truly surreal personal touches that made the intensely long running times slightly palatable. Salazar’s Revenge resists those moments, with the latter action scenes a sea (!) of overwhelming CGI nonsense and noise. ILM at least gift the walking undead army of Salazar some detailed touches, but they have little of the unbridled creativity of Davy Jones’s fish-encrusted soldiers (remember the hammer-headed shark man in Dead Man’s Chest?).
But, I hear you ask, what of Jack? Well Depp is there, and feels slightly more present than his sleepwalking On Stranger Tides performance, but there is still something missing. He is gifted some comedic gracenotes but too often it feels like a karaoke performance, that effervescent glint in his eye conspicuously missing replaced instead with more than normal prat-falling and drunken slurring. Despite his outlandish posturing Depp always brought a broken humanity to Sparrow, even in the confounding second and third films, but none of that is on display here. Thwaites plays his straight man bland and rigid akin to Bloom but doesn’t rustle up that Sparrow chemistry that so worked in the first film. Kaya Scodelario at least matches the spunky boisterous tone that Keira Knightley ably performed first time around, even giving her Carina Smyth a spark of intelligence that charms. Elsewhere returning players fit back into their roles comfortably, including the welcome return of Stephen Graham and Kevin McNally as the crusty world weary sea dogs at Jack’s side. However the inclusion of singer Paul McCartney as a relative of Jacks is confoundingly odd with the film literally halting for 2 mins so the two of them can share some funny if oddly tuned humour.
Geoffrey Rush also returns and gives an authoritative scenery chewing performance despite the fact that the story offers him absolutely nothing to work with until a late film reveal that manages to bring a tinge of heart no matter how forced it feels. The real scenery munching of course goes to Javier Bardem. Once again delivering his usual Skyfall outlandishness with a side order of rage filled black spittle and ghostly augmentation. He’s a decent enough villain but not as memorable as previous bad guys in the franchise.
It doesn’t help that the plot gives him little to work with beyond simple revenge. The reasoning behind all this rage is revealed in a de-aged Johnny Depp flashback that answers questions that I’m pretty sure no fan has ever asked. Other than that it is surprising how thin this 129 min (the shortest of the series) plot is. Every player is after the mystical macguffin, all for pretty basic reasons, and repeatedly collide until the final effects heavy finale. The way players come into the story then leave again only to return is narratively simplistic whilst being simultaneously confusing. As events wrap up and old characters make fan-pleasing if unnecessary appearances you’re left wondering if the story is over already! Although an end credit scene makes it clear that despite all the ‘Final Adventure’ advertisement there is more on the cards. At this point such a reveal stands as threat more than promise and I for one think this franchise should now be left to drift off into the horizon.
Verdict: Salazar’s Revenge has flashes of the original’s verve but is ultimately weighed down by a trite story, forgettable villain and a half hearted Johnny Depp performance. These Pirates are all lost at sea!