Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Re-View
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (or Salazar’s Revenge) is the world’s most over produced pantomime. The movie is over the top, broadly acted, it has too many jokes and most of them are terrible, and it has cheap scares and thrills. And that’s kinda why it’s great. There’s a maxim in film criticism that one should judge films on how successfully they manage to execute the idea it’s attempting to do whilst rewarding films for any artistic merits they achieve beyond that initial goal. PotC 5 knows exactly what it is.
It is the fifth movie in a franchise based on a theme park ride. It knows that the first movie is the one that’s actually great. It knows the second two movies exhausted everyone. It knows that despite having an okay fourth movie that no one really cared about it despite seeing it in droves. It knows that even if the idea that PotC films being a joke is a little unfair, that’s still what people think.
So it goes for pantomime. It goes for cheap jokes and silly action and if you’re willing to accept that intent, it works. Johnny Depp might actually have been drunk during the filming of this one. Jack Sparrow is written as a constant farce. He doesn’t even get to have genuine moments of redemption as past movies gave him. He’s over the hill. His arc isn’t so much about one last desperate chance for glory, but his randomly encountering some young hopeful people who hand him back a life he doesn’t deserve. The Flanderization of Sparrow actually makes sense for his story here. All that being said, there is a flashback sequence that serves as the origin of “Jack Sparrow” that is quite cool, even in spite of the terrible anime looking de-ageing effects on Johnny Depp.
In our new young protagonists we also get some improvements on the Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan moulds. This time the writers realize that Turner children are boring and it’s better to have less of them. With the female lead Carina Smyth (Kaya Scoledario) they’ve improved on the Elizabeth Swan archetype. Smyth readily jumps into action without being a hostage first. She’s sly, discerning, headstrong and arrogant. She’s even something of a science driven sceptic. She’s an actually unique and interesting character who is the real protagonist of the movie as she drives all the important decisions made. It’s a shame that female characters only get to be pure sceptics in fantasy worlds where they’re automatically wrong by nature of the genre (see Dana Scully for more). Some acting criticisms could also be made, but it seems like no one is being directed to act well in this movie. Swinging for the fences and ham-to-ham combat is the order of the day.
The villain Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem) is also pretty fun. His motivations are clear: he hated pirates as a human and then a pirate caused him to become cursed as a ghost. He was an expert pirate killer as a human and now he can’t even be hurt. Bardem brushes off enough of his leftovers from No Country for Old Men and Skyfall to have a threatening presence. However, most of the work is done by the actually very effective and creepy design of his ghostliness. The effects are on point with Salazar even if they’re a bit iffy elsewhere in the movie.
The movie also features the return of some PotC favourites. The ever wonderful Captain Hector Barbossa injects life into proceedings as usual. The reliable Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) also returns with Murtogg (Giles New) and Mullroy (Angus Barnett) and even Scrum (Stephen Graham) from On Stranger Tides.
In fact the movie features quite a few spots of continuity porn. There are obvious visual call-backs or mirrored narrative situations, but without being too heavy handed or dependant on them. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is driven by the desire to free his father William from the curse he received in the third movie. Barbossa still has Blackbeard’s sword from On Stranger Tides and Jack Sparrow still has the Black Peal in a bottle from that movie also. In fact, the characters are often conveniently saved by people or things from their past. This doesn’t rob tension (as there isn’t that much) so much as it does actually serve the themes of the film. PotC 5 is partly about Jack Sparrow’s lost glory and rediscovery that he has led a life and thus has connections in his past to draw on.
Hector Barbossa is also *SPOILERS* revealed to be the father of Carina Smyth. This provides some last minute pathos to the proceedings. Ultimately Barbossa sacrifices himself to save her (and everyone) at the end of the movie. I actually cried. Barbossa only revealed himself as her father by accident (with a tattoo) as he died. PotC 5 had thoroughly established how much Carina had based herself in the few trinkets Barbossa had left her with at birth, and so to see her realise she’s watching her father die is quite horrible. It’s also horrible for anyone with any PotC love or nostalgia. Barbossa was the villain of the first movie, but he was slowly redeemed movie-by-movie after that. I can’t be alone in wishing he’d taken over as the main pirate character of the franchise.
In fact there was another moment I cried in this film because of nostalgia and the emotions that stem from that. The movie ends with William Turner freed from his curse on the Flying Dutchman and finally able to return to shore and reunite with his son, but also his wife Elizabeth. After ten years of waiting in real life and about twenty for them, it was heartfelt and overwhelming. One could argue that isn’t a strength of this film as it is paying off the set up of three separate movies, but that returns us to the strongest aspect of PotC 5: it knows what it is. It knows it is the fifth movie in an exhausted franchise. It squeezes what little pathos it can from the Carina/Barbossa plotline and then reminds us of what we loved at the beginning of the franchise.
Now so far the movie may just sound like a pantomime that borrows its heart from another movie, which is true, but there are some strong fundamentals at play here too. There are incredibly well executed action sequences such as pirates stealing a bank (the whole building) on land, Jack and Henry fighting off zombie sharks in a row boat whilst a ghost ship bears down on them and when Jack has to fight off a living statue and Salazar at the same time, whilst running along the tips of cannons on the outside of two ships facing each other. Lots of good plate-spinning action. The movie is also relatively short and has a breezy pace. It just gets on with it.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales isn’t an action-adventure masterpiece like The Curse of the Black Pearl. But it isn’t overwrought or overlong. The jokes are terrible, but if you can’t laugh with them you can laugh and/or enjoy groaning at them. The villain is solid. Jack Sparrow is treated as he should be. The protagonist Carina is a refreshing change whilst still being pantomime appropriate. The soundtrack is as epic as ever and even manages to arrest the same powerful nostalgia other moments in the film evoke. In fact the whole film manages to balance appropriate levels of nostalgia with new elements without tipping into The Force Awakens territory. The action is pretty damn good too. There are a lot of missteps embedded in the movie, but it’s still a lot of fun.