Monday, May 29, 2017

Zaki's Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Before last week, my sole experience with the Pirates of the Caribbean films was seeing the first one during its theatrical release in 2003 while honeymooning in Hawaii. At the time, I remember my reaction being something along the lines of, "It was okay...I guess." While the effects were suitably snazzy and director Gore Verbinski's skill behind the camera is undeniable, it was about a half-hour longer than it needed to be, and Johnny Depp's Oscar-nominated turn as Captain Jack Sparrow aside, the entire experience passed in one glass eyeball and out the other.

Given my relative apathy toward the original, I skipped the first sequel, Dead Man's Chest, when it dropped a few years later (as I did with all the subsequent ones), and my most lasting memory is utter befuddlement at how those films rode the waves to box office glory. For the first time in my filmgoing life, it just felt like the zeitgeist had left me stranded ashore. But with the onset of the Disney mega-franchise's fifth installment, I steeled myself for the hard reality that I needed to get up to speed very, very quickly, and so I mainlined ten hours of Pirates movies in rapid succession, culminating in the latest, Dead Men Tell No Tales.

The verdict? Well, if nothing else I have to give it up to the Mouse House for finding a way to squeeze a five-movie franchise out of a one-movie premise. That feat becomes even more impressive when you consider the fact that whole thing started its life as blatant cash grab aimed at giving a three-minute theme park ride a bit more luster (it's not like we're talking about The Country Bears or The Haunted Mansion, right?). As such, my inclination is to grade it all on a curve, but honestly, this is a series that pretty much began to collapse under the weight of its own accumulated mythology one film in, and everything since then is just a deeper dive into that singularity.

The new installment picks up roughly ten years after 2010's On Stranger Tides (which managed to clear $1 billion worldwide even while being largely dismissed by critics) saw Johnny Depp's Jack matching wits with the evil Blackbeard (Ian McShane) in search of the Fountain of Youth. This time around, Jack must contend with Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), a pirate-hunter who was condemned to an existence of living death many years ago after an encounter with the devil-may-care pirate, and who is desperate to find Sparrow (or, once it goes through Bardem's lilting Latino accent-o-meter, "Esparrrrrro") to extract his pound of flesh.

Meanwhile, young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is desperate to free his father Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, last seen captaining the cursed Flying Dutchman way back in number three) from a life of servitude to the sea. The solution to this is the lost Trident of Poseidon, which promises to break any and all curses of the sea when shattered (talk about the McGuffin of all McGuffins). It's not long before Henry crosses paths with Jack, alongside erstwhile scientist (and accused witch) Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), and off they quest, with Salazar and Sparrow's longtime frenemy Hector Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) in hot pursuit.

One thing you realize after downing this whole series in one big gulp is that the entire enterprise hinges on the appeal of Johnny Depp's stumbling, drunken Captain Jack. The other thing you realize is that a little of that goes a long, long way. While I won't question how revelatory the character may have been for audiences with his '03 introduction (that Oscar nom speaks for itself), the intervening decade-and-change have drained much of his charm away. It feels like each of these episodes involves Depp wheeling out the same set of tics and mannerisms without doing anything to deepen Jack and make him anything more than the caricature he started out as.

If you can't buy into the centrality of Jack Sparrow as a hero worth following, then the whole thing starts to fall in on itself a bit, because it's not like new supporting characters are particularly interesting (Bardem's discomfort is evident even through a CGI facade). Beyond that, the extended mythology of the films isn't particularly compelling either -- nor does it make much sense -- with the internal rules entirely reliant on whatever is convenient for the screenwriters (Jeff Nathanson, from a story concocted with Pirates co-creator Terry Rossio). Not helping is that directors Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg add none of the polish that made even the most indulgent of Verbinski's entries visually appealing.

Dead Men Tell No Tales is a hair better than the previous film, but far removed from even the simple charms of the original. And while the marketing is positioning this as a grand farewell for Depp's money-minting alter ego, there's nothing in the film itself with necessarily the same finality to it. While certain long-running plot threads are brought to resolution, the satisfaction one draws from them will rely greatly on what one brings to it. At the end of the day, we all know the only way this franchise truly sails into the sunset is if audiences stop showing up. And if the box office fortunes plundered by this one are anything like its predecessors, then we'd best batten down the hatches and get ready for another voyage with Jack Sparrow in a few years -- whether we want it or not. C-

For more movie talk, including more Pirates talk, in-depth thoughts on Alien: Covenant, and an interview with Lethal Weapon TV star Clayne Crawford, catch the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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