De La Soul told us that 3 is a magic number. Maybe they were lying to us or maybe it’s been subject to inflation over the years (I blame <insert politics joke>) but I think these days, it’s 5 that’s the magic number.... at least when it comes to film franchises. It seems to have evolved into the natural, “time to nut up or shut up” point whereby people realizes it can no longer ride on its original success for continuation. That if it wants to have 6th, 7th and beyond instalments, it needs to produce something great, something to remind us why we should still care. Fast & Furious reinvented themselves into lovable madness with Fast 5. Mission Impossible re-found its purpose and continuity with Rogue Nation. Harry Potter made its best magic in Order in the Phoenix (...I’m getting shredded in the comments section for that one). Yes okay, occasionally you get something terrible like Die Hard 5 but even that took some risks to try and refresh itself. Hell, I’m even optimistic about the upcoming 5th Transformers film might turn things around. Pirates of the Caribbean now joins the list of film franchises finding a second wind in the 5th round. After a decade of steadily declining sequels, the pirates have re-discovered their buried mojo as Dead Men Tell No Tales (or “Salazar’s Revenge” in some regions) brings back that all important fun factor that made us ship out in the first place.
The young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites – Oculus) seeks the Trident of Poseidon to break his father’s curse as Captain of the Flying Dutchman. He’ll need help from the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp – everything) and the astronomer Carina (Kaya Scodelario – The Maze Runner). While fearsome spectral Spaniard Salazar (Javier Bardem – Skyfall) is after his vengeance on Sparrow.
With a weather eye to the horizon, the first act takes great care introducing its new of pair of leads in Henry and Carina. It turns out to be the film’s biggest strength in the way it quickly and establishes and endears the pair separately before bringing everyone together to (mostly) recapture the same balance that Bloom’s Will and Knightly’s Elizabeth brought to crew. Henry slips into his father’s shoes as the honourable do-gooder to play off against swindling looser morality of Jack’s character. Carina provides the strong and self-assured female presence among the male dominated cast. Portraying her as a scientist feels original for the franchise and provides good material playing off against the fantasy aspects of the franchise along with pirate superstition. Both also get good character arcs throughout the film, with Carina’s surprising with its depth. Next on treasure haul are the franchise’s staple set pieces. These pack a lot fun creativity and thankfully many do so with restraint rather than a tidal wave of CG. A particularly routine involving a guillotine is one of the funniest sequences the franchise has ever produced. While there are some moments that stretch things to breaking point, the more C- based sequences still have a lot of merit to them. The crown jewel is Salazar’s floating wrecked ship which looks positively awesome as it engulfs other vessels like a giant wooden Alien facehugger. Finally, there is the overall tone of the film which is blinding sunshine compared to the darker notions of the last 3 films. Yes, there are peril and stakes but this film lets its cast smile and crack a joke about rather than being sad and worried for most of the film. It lets the pirates just be pirates.
Yet the film hits the most unexpected of rocks: Depp’s performance. While he still delivers plenty of good moments and some great laughs, you’d a be liar and fool to call him the same Captain Jack that captured your heart in 2003. He comes across (somewhat understandably) as being tired of the role. The story doesn’t develop or expand his character anywhere beyond a so-so origins flashback. Neither is Jeff Nathanson’s script (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) giving him as much to work with as he’d like. In fact, the wanting dialogue takes its toll on many a poor returning character. There are some scenes and exchanges that genuinely leave you wondering if that was really the best they could have done as the same low-grade joke is stretched on for minutes. While there is intentionally a lot going to reposition the franchise, at times the story is a bit too chaotic and choppy. Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg (Marco Polo) clearly wanted their seas to be rough and action-packed but calming thinks a little would have made their story a much smoother journey. While the action and visual effects are, as you’d expect, eye-catching, imaginative and at times magnificent, they sadly neuter Salazar as the central villain. Consider Geoffrey Rush as the skeletal Barbossa or Bill Nighy as Davy Jones. While the visual enhancements were prominent, the actor was still recognizable and driving that performance. Whereas here the shady tones of Salazar’s ghost/spectral form completely drown out Javier Bardem, reducing his character to little more than an occasionally incomprehensible accent that hates pirates for painfully vague reasons.
While some are clear Fast 5 comparisons, like the wonderfully mad first act bank robbery, if this pirate has a sequel brother in arms it’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. It serves to introduce and further new characters for continuation while honouring the historic fan favourites and ends up being a soft reboot for the franchise courtesy of its “undo all the curses” Trident McGuffin. It could have felt like a cheap way of re-writing its history. Instead as the credits role (stay till the end) following some satisfying character conclusions, it feels like the franchise has applied the proper leverage to its shackles. It’s by no means a perfect sequel but it is the Pirates film we needed because above all else, it will make you excited again about future franchise instalments rather than just treating them as another washed up offering by the summer blockbuster tides. Savvy?