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Indeed, Dead Men Tell No Tales— but neither, really, do the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Rather than stories, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, of which this 2017 installment is the fifth, delivers an unpalatable mix of mincing slapstick, rote derring-do, ponderous CGI, whiskery sea-chantey mysticism, and dutiful action scenes whose only narrative intention is to scramble the cast. (Every half-hour or so, one set of characters is taken prisoner by the other set of characters, following a hard-to-follow scuffle.) Listen to kids chat about the films and you won’t hear them say, I like the one where Captain Jack finds the Fountain of Youth. Instead it’s all I like the part with the mermaids. Day-long and bloated, the Pirates movies have long been something like the treasure hunts at their cores — endure and you may earn some payoff.
The part with the mermaids, from the series’ 2011 entry, is excellent, as programmatic big-budget adventure filmmaking goes. Pirates sweep through smooth blue-black waters in a boat, a lighthouse behind them, the uneasy stillness bursts into only when the visage of a supermodel slips up along the prow. Rob Marshall (Into the Woods, Chicago) has never been the type of director whose PR representatives toss around the word visionary, but that scene beats, in clarity and power, much of what Visionary Director Gore Verbinski threw in our faces in the relentless first three Pirates. Marshall’s Pirates, the fourth entry, seemed to have been filmed on sets and ships rather than inside computers. It also appearedd intended to slim down a saga that had grown tremendously overstuffed, but it still ran north of more than 2 hours. The latest clocks in at 129 minutes, which means that someone involved is at least trying.
Also welcome: The percentages of good parts to not are more generous than they’ve been in decades, yet there’s still much too much of the usual undead sea dogs killing their prisoners and rumbling on about curses. (The bad guy this time around is a cadaverous Javier Bardem, who’s nowhere near as menacing as he is in movies that call on him to play real people.)
Co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (the Kon-Tiki remake) amazingly deliver a bank heist that evokes a mule-driven, eighteenth-century Fast & Furious set piece. Some of the swordfights show inventive stunt work and meticulous choreography, especially one involving a hangman’s noose and a whirligig guillotine. The mermaids of the previous movie aren’t quite matched by this one’s zombie sharks, but the zombie sharks are the cold pizza of tentpole timekillers — you could do worse. Harder to beat is the view of Geoffrey Rush, as Sparrow’s longtime antagonist Barbossa, perched upon a reigne, surrounded by golden skulls, his hair curled like the Cowardly Lion’s after his Emerald City makeover. And at the climax, took place a trench beneath an ocean that’s been parted, Moses-style, we at times are given the opportunity to actually look at the wonders that the Pirates movies’ quick-cutting hurly-burly has so often made a headachy blur.
Of course, those parts never cohere. They perhaps couldn’t anyway, since the story once again focuses on Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, a character who at this point makes more sense in a Party City clearance aisle than on a multiplex screen. In Verbinski’s original Pirates of Caribbean, Jack Sparrow was the movie’s spark but not entirely the hero: He was a source of comic chaos, a bleary-eyed horndog drunk who sashayed along like a Mel Brooks loon who has just led a straight man to “Walk this way.” While Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom nailed the square-jawed heroics, a free Depp capered at the movie’s edges like a Sergio Aragonés sketch running along the side of a Mad magazine page.
By Marshall’s installment, On Stranger Tides, the comic relief had been given to hero, with the effect of marginalia magnified to the foreground, an imp made to bring expositional hokum. Imagine if Groucho cared entirely from the first shot about whatever the stuffed shirts at the opera care about — and then, in the events of helping them out, was assigned with explaining the plot. (Not that Captain Jack has ever been in the league of these comics.) If you’ve heard what Depp had to say in Tides, you’ll probably find it less amusing that, in this latest installment, he was reportedly fed his dialogues through an earpiece under his wig. “I have to walk up stairs for all this?” Jack complains in this entry, and it’s impossible not to imagine the actor himself asking that from the comfort of his trailer. Depp finds no fresh views on Jack in this time around, and he doesn’t really seem to have looked — but at least the script never requires that Jack seem to give a shit about much.
So Jack remains the series’ spirit and also the hole at its center, in a ale that is something like what children might imagine when pretending to be pirates themselves: a vague chains of scrapes, betrayals, and spells, all in search for the latest barnacled tchotchke, in this case the trident of Poseidon. Kids, of course, would know better than to weigh down the fun with this chapter’s dynastic plotting — everyone, it seems, is someone else’s son or daughter, a gambit to make the stabbings and the pratfalls seem to mean something.
The marketing hinted that this time Jack might be the tchotchke, that the franchise might now provide us new characters searching for him, as The Force Awakens did with Luke Skywalker. Alas, Sparrow pops up something like twelve minutes in, in what is perhaps his best entrance since the first one. As in the first film, second-banana heroes drive the plot, a drip of a swashbuckler dude and a peppery heroine who seems smart and capable at the start but will still need plenty of saving. Since everyone is forever getting captured in these Pirates of the Caribbean films, I wouldn’t complain about that aspectif it weren’t for the fact that, rather than save the day herself, Kaya Scodelario’s stubborn and self-actualized astronomer-adventurer spends most of the climatic scenes trying to wake up her useless helpmate (Brenton Thwaites) so he can do the work. While disheartening, her pleas and small slaps might be the only things here that resonate in our world: They might signal to adults that Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Men Tell No Tales movie is ending and it’s at last time to wake up.