I’ve found that the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies benefit from low expectations. Take the original, “Curse of the Black Pearl” from 2003. At first, it seemed like a bad idea to invest so heavily in a pirate movie (two words: “Cutthroat Island”) based on a Disney theme park ride (three words: “The Country Bears”). But the movie pulled a huge upset and proved the naysayers wrong: it was funny, it was exciting, Johnny Depp got an Oscar nomination for playing the mischievous Captain Jack Sparrow, and it made a ton of money. Then came three sequels that were maybe good for a handful of chuckles and one or two decent action sequences apiece. The franchise got old and wore out its welcome. Early word on “Dead Men Tell No Tales” was that it was a pathetic, desperate attempt to extend the series. It’s not that bad. It’s on the same level as the first three sequels. It’s nowhere near as good as the first film, but it’s better than what I expected.
The plot is convoluted and messy, but basically everybody is racing to acquire the Trident of Poseidon, a mythical wish-granting device. It can be used to collect treasure, destroy enemies, or in the case of Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), get his father (Orlando Bloom) out of the commitment to the Flying Dutchman that’s kept him away from his family for the past twenty years. Out of desperation, Henry enlists the help of Sparrow and amateur astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) who’s been sentenced to death because she’s a woman who practices science, and therefore a witch. Also in pursuit of the trident is Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an old enemy of Sparrow who’s been stuck as a decomposing ghost for decades. He wants to rid the sea of all pirates, but is supposedly willing to spare Captain Hector Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) if he helps him reach the trident first. Sparrow, Henry, Carina, Salazar, and Barbosa all bounce off each other as they use various strategies to manipulate and outmaneuver the others.
The film has all the failings of the later “Pirates” movies. The second and third acts are overstuffed with poor lighting, confusing action, magical mumbo-jumbo, and bad CGI. I thought based on the trailers that I wouldn’t be able to get over the unworkable dead-skinned face on Bardem, but what’s even worse is the way the effects team can’t render simple things like water, metal chains, and wooden planks. You know your movie is doing something wrong when I’m dwelling on how lousy the wood looks. As for characters, Henry and Carina have nowhere near the charisma as original “Pirates” power couple Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley. Speaking of Carina, maybe the fifth movie in the series is not the time to introduce a science-minded character who is shocked to learn that pirate magic exists – we’ve been through this before. As for the humor, this movie hopes you like snickering at the word “horologist,” because that joke keeps coming up as if it never gets old.
So what saves “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”? There’s a nice little subplot for Barbosa; Geoffrey Rush steals the ending of this movie the way Michael Rooker steals the latest “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But I’m mostly referring to two imaginative action sequences at the beginning. One sees Jack and his crew steal a bank (the omission of the word “from” is no accident) and the other is a botched double execution. It’s nice to see Jack Sparrow back to his old tricks, simultaneously experiencing the best and worst luck a pirate can have. The film can’t keep up the energy of these early scenes, but it’s nice to know the franchise isn’t entirely creatively bankrupt. This movie is by no means redemption for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but it’s not dead in the water either.
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