Friday, May 26, 2017


The fifth in a series that once represented welcome freshness in the blockbuster formula, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is only enjoyable insofar as it can occasionally remind you of how much more fun you had at the other ones. Gore Verbinski managed to revitalize the old pirate swashbuckler with 2003’s Curse of the Black Pearl, a perfectly structured adventure movie let loose with an endlessly charming cast and its director’s elaborate visual imagination – cursed seafarers turning into skeletons by moonlight, and funny visual gags involving sinking ships, subverting expectations, and Buster Keaton-ish choreography. Then there was, of course, the loopy, unpredictable mannerisms of the ditzy, tipsy, rascally scoundrel Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp in the most wholly successfully enjoyable performance of his career, bringing in great eccentric surprise from the margins of every scene. The rest of the trilogy allowed Verbinski to go wilder with his terrific eye for spectacle, then a fourth – a coda for which the director and some of the main cast didn’t return – managed to eke out its charms by not spoiling the affection built up by its predecessors. This time around, though, what once felt like a new approach to an old subgenre is now waterlogged and predictable itself. 

Once again, we’re introduced to a band of ghost pirates intoning about curses and revenge. This time it’s a Spanish crew led by Javier Bardem (speaking incomprehensibly through a mouthful of black bile) who are undead, trapped on their zombie ship in a cave. They crave freedom to sail the seas and slay the pirate who left them for dead. Wouldn’t you know it? That pirate was Jack Sparrow. Depp slurs in, playing the once-fun character as the drunkest and loopiest he’s ever been. His timing is off, the mannerisms are twitchier, and the charm is mostly gone. Now he’s not flirty and sly; he’s leering and grotesque. Still, there are times when he stirs from his stupor long enough to pull off a fun bit of action, like a fantastic slice of dark comedy involving an intricately choreographed guillotine gone wrong. To assist in filling out an adventure plot around this decaying caricature is a new fresh-faced hero, a young chap we’re told is the child of the trilogy’s stars, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. (That Brenton Thwaites is a pretty man who looks like the exact midpoint between Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley helps sell the parentage.) There’s also a young lady scientist accused of being a witch (Kaya Scodelario). They meet crossing paths in pursuit of Poseidon’s Trident, an ancient device that controls all sea curses or whatever. It’s always something. 

The new filmmakers at the helm are Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, whose Kon Tiki is just the sort of straight-down-the-middle foreign film that gets you a Hollywood job. With a blandly competent anonymous style, they steer the franchise through choppy waters – a screenplay that’s pulling apart at the seams, old performances rapidly diminishing their appeal, and a tangle of convoluted new mythos that labors under its nonsensical approach to continuity. The aesthetics merely recycle what’s worked before – crumbling undead, soggy ships, sharp period costume – mixing in a few new sights – ghost sharks, a jewel-encrusted island. The action alternates between big and memorably stupid (a sort of restaging and one-upping of Fast Five’s bank vault finale, but on horseback) and big and boring (gloopy CG waterfalls and incoherent swordplay). As for navigating the series’ tonal balance or managing tricky performances, that’s where the movie falls flat the most. It flows out as a procession of incidents involving vacant figures, played with an exaggerated insistence on forced frivolity. There’s simply no consistent emotional tug or easily comprehensible motivation pulling it along when the movie must remind us of the stakes in increasingly desperate explanations.

It’s bad enough Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay is constantly repeating itself, introducing every bout of exposition at least three times and throwing the characters into each scrape – jail cells, double crosses, hidden islands, and so on – at least twice. But for the new leads to remain only vaguely attractive blanks filled in with the scantest motivation and the old characters to appear reduced to barely more than moving Colorforms of their former selves? That’s where the movie’s total lack of tension, chemistry, and energy really starts to drag. There’s little about the movie that follows naturally out of what came before it in its predecessors’ continuity, making this at this point a series dragged out only for the sake of profit and not for invention of even a meager sort. Even the nods to old MacGuffins are convoluted and forced. There are fleeting moments of fun spectacle, that familiar stirring score, and a few choice cameos. But that it has its passably diverting moments only makes the soggy slog around it more tediously disappointing.

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