The world of Pirates of the Caribbean is that of Colonial sailor myth: ghost ships and cursed doubloons, hidden islands and wailing shanties. The series is a refreshing take on these tropes, with its trademark action set-pieces and stunning visual effects – and the glue that holds it all together (or so Hollywood thinks); Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow.
…And here, we find the problem.
Don’t get me wrong. Depp, in his Sparrow role, is the king of physical comedy. He staggers drunkenly from set to set, toppling and springing through the eye of the needle, swigging rum and – perhaps twice per movie – managing to outwit his demonic adversaries. Perhaps, at some point, the camera pans over Jack as he has an emotional, noble moment. Depp’s portrayal has revived the pirate for our modern times.
…But as time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to think of Jack Sparrow as a human being. He does not, and cannot, have any meaningful character development – Disney needs to drop him back at the beginning with each new film, wound up to repeat the same steps, stumbles, and pratfalls.
That’s not to say there is nothing novel in the series. If you can be satisfied with reused plot points, coupled with creative visuals and action and the occasional witty line, then I say go for it – keeping in mind I just described the majority of modern movies. In this current film climate, a reviewer should stop asking ‘is it decent?’ (most movies are decent, following the standard Hollywood, focus group-tested narratives), but instead, ‘is it a waste of your time?’ With this in mind, let’s move forward.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (or Dead Men Tell No Tales) is the fifth instalment in the series, and boy, does it show. Even old Jack seems to be growing sick of it: he is at a low point in life. His drinking has become a serious issue, and his grand attempts at gaining a fortune have turned up nothing but scraps. As his crew drifts away, he gives up on glory and trades his last bit of dignity – the magical compass that points him to his greatest desire – for a bottle of rum. This turns out to be (surprise, surprise) a rather bad idea: the compass’ enchantment will show the holder to their desires, but, if traded away, will bring upon them their worst fear. This sets about a chain of events leading to a clash between Jack and an old nemesis, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem).
I’d like to take a moment to admire the visual direction. Salazar and his ghostly crew are downright interesting to look at: their bodies trapped in the instant of their deaths, missing arms, legs, and sometimes entire torsos and heads. Their hair flows as though underwater, and their flesh is pale and bloated. Their ship, the Silent Mary, is a character in itself – decayed to a wooden husk, its underbelly splitting open like a giant maw to devour other ships. Salazar himself trudges around using two sabres as walking canes, both of them rusted and coated in barnacles. In this sense, Pirates 5 succeeds in establishing menacing villains…
Unfortunately, they are only menacing in comparison to their prey: the British Navy and Captain Barbossa’s fleet. The British are portrayed as utterly ineffective in every single way, unable to notice a girl picking a lock inches from their eyes, shoot an unmoving target approximately five metres away (wasting about 50 bullets), or notice a gigantic ship approaching their unprotected flank. Barbossa’s men, meanwhile, are equally unimpressive: the most we see of them are two squealing idiots and a band of violinists.
So, the writers expect us to fear Captain Salazar, who has accomplished nothing of note. He captures Barbossa’s crew and tearfully reveals his backstory, but this comes off more as Disney ticking boxes: death count, check; tragic past, check; growling monologue, check! In fact, Salazar seems to exist only as a device for a certain character’s redemption. Spoilers, it’s not Jack’s, and we only learn that this character needs redeeming late in the third act.
Whatever Pirates 5 is, it is not Jack Sparrow’s story. His ‘character arc’ – his destructive drinking and loss of self-respect – is never resolved. He goes through the motions, and is present at all the key scenes where these things would usually be addressed, but the narrative mostly forgets him in favour of Captain Barbossa and new characters Henry and Corina.
…And that would be fine, if Disney was subverting the formula. A movie from Barbossa’s view, portraying Jack as an unchanging, self-torturing caricature of himself would be interesting, but it can never happen. People like Jack Sparrow. I like Jack Sparrow. But sometimes, when you love something, you need to let it go.
The music is nothing spectacular. As expected, we get multiple remixes of He’s a Pirate, a song that never seems to get old. Almost never, anyway; the cracks are beginning to show. There isn’t much more to say.
I’ve been trashing the movie a lot, but it isn’t necessarily awful. There’s a lot to like, from the costume and set design to the rare moments of genuine hilarity where you want to give the film more credit than it deserves. Unfortunately, the bad aspects are impossible to ignore. Plot-holes pile up, character motivations and narrative logic unwind; moment of dumb ‘humour’ make you wonder if even kids would find them funny…
Jack’s back, and it ain’t pretty.