Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Grade : C+ Year : 2017 Director : Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg Running Time : 2hr 9min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

Full disclosure: I never felt like “Pirates of the Caribbean” should have been a franchise. Yes, 2003’s “The Curse of the Black Pearl” was a fantastic adventure movie, and gave us a classic character in Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow (for which the actor received his first Oscar nomination, deservedly), but I feel like it was perfectly self-contained, and ended just right. That said, I have seen all the sequels, and will admit that all of them have good points, but hold even stronger in my belief that “Pirates of the Caribbean” should have been a one-and-done piece of cinematic gold. Now, it stands as a bloated parody of itself, and that is a tragedy for how much Gore Verbinski, Johnny Depp and co. got right that first time out.

At this point, I never want to see Jack Sparrow in a movie again. What was originally a high-wire act of performance art by the ever-inventive Depp has turned into a tired way for the actor to make a bunch of money when he isn’t collaborating with Tim Burton. The character lost all his mystery and charm by the end of the second film in the series, “Dead Man’s Chest,” and not even rock legends like Keith Richards and Paul McCartney (cast as his father and uncle, respectfully), can make the boredom of watching Sparrow drunkenly find his way through each new adventure tolerable. The worst thing that happened to this franchise was having Sparrow be the break-out character from “Curse of the Black Pearl,” because it meant that any successive movie needed him at the center of it. If the series had been able to shift focus away from characters from the first film, maybe it would have had more staying power. Instead, what we’ve gotten is a franchise that doesn’t stray too far from the original cast of characters, and while that’s a natural occurrence for a series, it also limits the possibilities of storytelling available for new writers (like “Dead Men Tell No Tales” screenwriter Jeff Nathanson) and directors (like Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, the duo bringing this film to life). Hasn’t it been exciting to see “Star Wars” break away from the Skywalker family so far? Why is Disney not able to figure that out here?

The McGuffin at the center of “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is Poseidon’s Trident, which, it is said, will give the wielder dominion over the seas, but can also be used to break curses the sea has bestowed upon travelers. It is that latter trait that leads Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan (see what I mean about the closed loop storytelling?), to seek out Jack Sparrow to try and find it; he hopes to break the curse on his father. Why Jack Sparrow? His compass is the key (okay, getting mileage out of the compass is a nice touch), although it’s also the key to an old nemesis of Sparrow’s, Captain Salazar (an undead captain, whose undead status is thanks to Jack, played by Javier Bardem, who is in NO way copying from his previous bad guy roles in “No Country for Old Men” and “Skyfall”), to break free and set sail for the Trident himself. Henry also finds himself enlisting the assistance of a woman, Carina Smyth (played by Kaya Scodelario), who is knowledgeable in astronomy, and may hold the key to reading a map no pirate can read. On his travels, Salazar comes across the ship of Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush- remember when he was a serious actor?), who has been commanding a fleet of pirates in the waters, and is tasked with finding Sparrow for Salazar.

If the above plot summary seems labored, it’s because it was a chore sitting through this film, feigning interest in what Rønning and Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki,” “Max Manus: Man of War”) were presenting on-screen. Honestly, though, it’s hard to blame them when they are simply going off of the blueprint Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer are giving them. There are terrific visual effects in this film, especially Salazar’s boat and much of the climax when they do find Poseidon’s Trident, but the story, and series, has twisted itself into too many knots to keep everything, and everyone, is connected in some way. This is like the “Star Wars” prequels all over again, and it’s not much fun this time around, either. I just hope that if the franchise returns, “Star Wars” style, in a decade or so, we get fresh eyes, who see that it was the perfect storm of story, engaging characters, and imagination that made the first film special, not just one actor drunk on his own loony notions of “acting.” Then, we might catch lightning in a bottle a second time, after all.

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