The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is a strange entity. It’s a theme park ride (and a dated, old fashioned one at that) that inspired a series of films, a concept which is already convoluted and strange. And when Gore Verbinski directed the first film, a man who had previously only made that frog Budweiser advert, the Nathan Lane starring comedy Mousehunt and the US remake of The Ring, there was a sense that the The Pirates of the Caribbean was destined to be a flop.
What followed was the best surprise of the summer, a modern classic and a simple-but-effective romp. Put simply, the Errol Flynn style swashbuckler surprised everyone by being daring, risky, funny, scary, exciting and in the end it took all the dollars. Top it off with Johnny Depp’s madcap Jack Sparrow, and at first the ire of executives was now a marketers wet dream; costumes, toys, and impressionists came in the bucket loads to waddle around, arms flailing saying “savvy?” to everything and everyone.
It’s easy to forget that film’s simple, joyous plot: undead pirates seek an Aztek coin, kidnap a girl who possesses it. That girl, the daughter of a British Governor, is not the true owner of the coin. A young blacksmith, smitten with the girl, and a drunk shipless pirate team up to find her before The British Navy do. Couple this with state of the art effects and a host of character actors, and one bloody catchy theme tune, and it is perfect viewing.
Then came the sequels. The eagerly anticipated Dead Man’s Chest convoluted the storyline, added backstories, more villains, and pulled all the characters apart. At World’s End muddied the water even more, with complex plotting, over the top CGI fights, too much going on, and a forced grim tone coupled with both film’s excessive length made them enjoyable, but slogs to get through. Then came the soft reboot On Stranger Tides, which saw the good elements kept, and some things changed. Gone was Verbinski, in was Rob Marshall (Chicago and Nine director), more jokes, more supernatural elements, more characters actors, less British Empire, less Orlando Bloom/Kiera Knightley, more cheaper replacements. It worked, but it wasn’t as good as the first film.
Now comes Salazar’s Revenge (a bland title, compared to the US’ version: Dead Men Tell No Tales ), and it’s been six years since Johnny Deep last waddled his way through easy money and big box office, but now he’s back, and he’s brought Geoffrey Rush and Kevin R McNally with him too. The plot is a fairly simple one; much like the rest of the world, everyone is fed up with Cap’n Jack, so he enlists the help of Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) son of Will, and astrologer – not witch – Carina (Skins’ Kaya Scodelario) to help him track down the trident of Poseidon which will grant the user control of the seas. On his tail is the British Empire, as well as Barbossa, who’s under threat from longtime Jack enemy Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), of the Spanish Empire; undead, and hungry for revenge.
On the postive side, the film plays out much like the best of the previous four films, there are over the top set pieces (one involving a whole building being pulled through a town via horses), there is Jack getting covered in strange substances, supernatural baddies, jokes about Geoffrey Rush’s nose, two likeable romantic leads, and a plot that really means buggar-all.
It’s hard to watch the film, however, and note the stories of Depp off screen, his near constant stream of box office duds, his gurning and annoying ticks, the fact that he’s blown his wealth on audio equipment so he doesn’t need to learn his lines (a trick he got from his late bestie Marlon Brando), and his drinking, his wife beating, and his illegal importation of dogs. Depp has, sadly, gone in the past ten years (when Dead Man’s Chest had just been released, and At World’s End was on the horizon) from one of cinema’s most respected character-actors, a man frequently lavished with critical praise and the affection of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam to poison, who farts out flubs like Dark Shadows, Mortedecai and that baffling cameo at the end of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Not only this, but there was an elegance The Curse of the Black Pearl’s sea swept love story, as rich Governess Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley’s star making role) rebuffed the affections of commanding officer Commodore Norrington for blacksmith poor boy Will Turner, there was even something to be said of Christian missionary Philip and mermaid Syrena. As good as Thwaites and Scodelario are, their characters are cheap rip-offs of the original duo, and despite some fun banter about admitting each other were right, and Thwaites rescue of Scodelario complete with “I’m an ally” “from where your hand is, I’d say we’re more than that” back and forth which does call to mind Katherine Hepburn/Jimmy Stewart banter there’s no reason to get involved.
Similarly, Rush is wasted as Barbossa, once a campy no-sob story villain, with the best moment of the franchise (you best start believing in ghost stories, Miss Turner, you’re in one – complete with rum guzzling skeleton) is now reduced to a pompous coward, who does very little save for come up with a revelation everyone saw coming a mile away, and go for the old heroic —- well we won’t spoil it, but it’s obvious where the film is headed.
The mutiny aspect is the twentieth go around in this series, and it’s a little worn out by now, though Kevin R McNally’s Gibbs is still an over-the-top delight and he has great rapport with Depp. But when it comes the the newer editions it’s all boring non-entities. The hint of good elements are there, a better film would have had bald witch Shansa – Golshifteh Farahani – as the main villain, but instead she’s nothing but a two scene character. Much like Naomie Harris’ Tia Dalma there was a chance for a pirate villainess but it’s gone because there’s someone less interesting to run from.
David Wenham, most recently seen in Iron Fist, plays Scarfield, a boring British officer, so devoid of anything interesting to do that even he seems bored by his performance. It makes you long for snobbish dick-headery of Jack Davenport or the 80s style quiet calm villainy of Tom Hollander’s Beckett. And the same goes for Javier Bardem’s Salazar.
Our main villain, the strange, constantly in water looking Salazar has the hint of interest. He is not a pirate, he is a commander of the Spanish navy, tasked with taking down all pirates, when a young Jack, outsmarts him, out sails him and leads him to doom. His revenge quest could make for interesting play, along with Jack having previous with the Spanish empire following On Stranger Tides, but Bardem here seems bored, and not tuned in with his villain like he was in No Country for Old Men or Skyfall. Here he’s doing a part, much like his mrs Penelope Cruz was in part four. And if your villain is so important he gets subtitle billing he better be good. His limping, scoffing, sword tapping performance makes you long for the campy-ness of Rush’s first turn, or even Ian McShane’s glorious Blackbeard, there are moments with the weird partially alive ship and skeleton sharks that you long for Bill Nighy’s Scottish squid Davy Jones.
In the end, there are thrills to be had, that opening with the building is thrilling, and the sword fights – when they eventually come – are fun too. It’s hard to fault the comedy either, from the bantering romance, to the perfect “argh” voice that Rush does, to Depp who was at one point the best silent actor of the sound age and a gifted comic actor, there’s no reason not to laugh at him being nearly beheaded by a guillotine (he picks it because it sounds french – “How bad can it be? It’s French.”), or even the constant misunderstanding of what horology is (the study of time).
When it comes down to it, even when the later films rolled out cameos – Keith Richards! Dame Judi Dench! – there was still an element of joy, but here when Paul McCartney’s much publicised cameo comes around, it looks more like a Hangover 2 style “we have to one up the last one”, and sort of fails. The mark being the return of bumbling comic duo Angus Barnett and Giles New – former King’s men turned pirates – marks the point you start to groan and roll your eyes; it makes you miss bald pirate and glass eye from the first three.