By Preston Wilder
Father to young son: “You have to stop acting like a–”. Son, defiant: “A pirate? I won’t stop!” Pirates of the Caribbean keeps going too, the franchise that appeared to have walked the plank after the timid and unmemorable On Stranger Tides six years ago rising from the deep with this marginally-better fifth instalment. You’d have to be a scurvy dog to be ungrateful, or at least a person who has better things to do with 129 minutes of their time.
What’s the plot? I couldn’t tell you. For a franchise based on a Disneyland ride, Pirates has always been remarkably turgid, weighing itself down with sub-plots and mumbo-jumbo. There’s the Trident of Poseidon, which can break all curses and is sought by the aforementioned son (played as a young adult by Brenton Thwaites) to lift the curse that imprisons his father. There’s “the map that no man can read”, with some odd inscription about the power of the sea. There’s the compass belonging to Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, of course), which doesn’t seem to do anything special but will, if sold or disposed of, bring a legion of dead ghostly sailors back to life. The sailors are led by the late Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) who gives the boy a message for Sparrow; I’d tell him myself but “dead men tell no tales,” he leers with meaning, conveniently setting up the title – except that the title on the print we have is Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, presumably changed because Dead Men Tell No Tales seemed too morbid.
Too morbid? That ship has sailed, if you’ll pardon the nautical reference. Death and dead people are everywhere here. Pirates are shot in cold blood as they splash in the sea, begging for mercy. Jack is set to be guillotined and gapes at the severed heads of previous incumbents in the basket in front of him, as he waits for the blade to fall. Young kids may find the film upsetting, not least because the look is often dark and claustrophobic – then again, that guillotine also features in an excellent sight gag, coming loose and starting to rotate with Jack still trapped in place so the blade keeps dropping down almost to his neck before being pulled up again. It’s a reminder of what Pirates does best, engineering slapstick set-pieces that work like complex mechanical contraptions.
The other thing the franchise does well (unsurprisingly; this is Hollywood, after all) is having people make deals: “Do we have an accord?” is a frequent refrain. When it focuses on incompatible characters – and/or sworn enemies – finding ways to rub along together, Dead Men Tell No Tales (Salazar’s Revenge, whatever) is largely amusing, and at least the soppy young lovers have been upgraded. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley make brief appearances – the ending tries for a stirring emotional punch it has no hope of earning – but Thwaites is livelier than Bloom and Kaya Scodelario is hugely less annoying than Knightley in the role of the smart ‘modern’ heroine, labelled a witch for her devotion to science. “I’m an astronomer,” she declares proudly. “Ah! She breeds donkeys!” one more-knowledgeable pirate explains to his fellows. “I’m also a horologist,” adds Kaya, only to be met with embarrassed silence. I suppose she asked for that one.
Pirates of the Caribbean has always been a bit of a mess, stray pleasures trapped in the amber of convoluted plots and an onslaught of special effects. It’s really best to talk about parts, not the whole. Let’s talk about the pirates’ daring bank heist, and how it trumps Fast Five by having their getaway car dragging not just a safe, but the entire bank! Let’s talk about the bit where Depp submits to the de-aging process that’s the new big thing in Hollywood – and how it doesn’t quite work, because this rather bland young Jack Sparrow isn’t the dreamy weirdo we recall from Depp’s own youth. Let’s talk (or let’s not) about the grotesque and gratuitous scene where Jack narrowly escapes a shotgun wedding to a disgusting crone. Let’s talk (if we must) about the affable cameo by Sir Paul McCartney MBE, who tells a creaky joke about a skeleton and somehow avoids giving everyone a thumbs-up.
And the film itself? Well, there’s not much point talking about that – because it’s a corporate product, sailing to a hoped-for billion dollars on board the good ship Brand Name. Its only aim is to tick some familiar boxes – Jack doesn’t get a pun to match “I support the missionary’s position” from On Stranger Tides but he does get perhaps his campiest-ever moment, flouncing coquettishly and lisping “You men are all alike!” – while spending an obscene amount of money. It’s boring, exhausting, and good enough to keep the franchise afloat for another couple of movies. As long as kids want to be pirates, they’ll want to see Pirates.
DIRECTED BY Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg
STARRING Johnny Depp, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Javier Bardem
US 2017 129 mins