Four sequels and fourteen long years on from Gore Verbinski’s brilliant swashbuckler, The Curse of the Black Pearl, the Johnny Depp fronted Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has definitively shipwrecked. The signs of shallow waters have been lingering for a while now but Salazar’s Revenge (known as Dead Men Tell No Tales in some regions for some reasons) is a mess through and through. No buckles are successfully swashed and my timbers remained wholly unshivered.
It is a backhanded credit to the film, directed by Scandinavian indie export duo Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (called in to curb escalating production costs), is that its most impressive feature is its ability to have the thinnest of plots and yet still make no sense whatsoever whilst being horribly convoluted. The film opens four years ahead of the last Pirates film and some eight or nine after the third – 2007’s equally blighted At World’s End – with Henry Turner (Lewis McGowan), son of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley’s Will and Elizabeth, attempting to break the curse that has entrapped his father as the Captain aboard The Flying Dutchman, formerly of Davy Jones. Setting aside the blatant implausibility of Henry’s existence (when?!), it’s a head scratcher of an opening dependant on your remembering the intricacies of the events of the third film. Details that were obscure at the time, never mind ten years later.
Fast forward nine years, so ‘five winters’ after On Stranger Tides, and Henry, now played by Brenton Thwaites, embarks on a quest to find ‘the Trident of Poseidon’ – a ridiculously named McGuffin with the power the give users ultimate power over the seas and/or break old curses within the seas, dependent on which character is on screen for the exposition dump at the time. Of course, nobody knows where the Trident is however and it can only be found by the following of a map which ‘no man can read’. Enter Carina Smyth (Skins graduate, Kaya Scodelario) an academic astronomer way ahead of her time, who possesses a uniquely jewelled notebook and the intellectual ability to read celestial maps.
Also after the Trident of Poseidon is Javier Bardem’s Captain Armando Salazar and his cursed crew of Spanish Naval sailors, formally renowned Pirate-busters intent on purifying the seven sees for good. Their triumphant regime was halted years (and some) earlier by a young and cocky pirate by the name of Jack Sparrow (a CG de-aged Depp) who tricked the Spaniards into sailing into the supernaturally buzzing Devil’s Triangle, where they spontaneously blew up and were forced to exist as the undead. Yep. That is until an older, drunker, Captain Jack proceeds to give away his magical compass (the one that points at what it is you most want, remember?), freeing the zombie crew with conquest and vengeance on their minds.
Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa is looking for the Trident too because….because, because, because, because of the wonderful things it does. Not a clue. Also on the trail are the British Royal Navy, steered by a deeply forgettable ensemble, for the reason that you can never have too many characters, right Jerry (Bruckheimer – producer of all five)?
Salazar’s Revenge has been billed in part as something of a reboot for the series but in reality the final product bears stronger resemblance to a fan fiction remake of the original. Without dropping plot spoilers of later facsimile developments, the conceit of starting with a young boy who grows up to develop a crush on a plucky young woman, who just happens to be in possession of an item key to the plot, and be chased by a cursed crew of zombies seeking revenge on Jack, with whom the boy forms an unlikely alliance…feels unquestionably familiar. Similarly so, the complete dearth of originality here can be seen in set pieces stolen from previous Pirates films and pirated from other franchises alike. An early bank robbery – they literally rob the bank – is entertaining but identikit to the same heist in Fast and Furious 5. Likewise, the moment in which a ship emerges arse-first from beneath the waves is a direct copy of the same shot in At World’s End.
Brought in to fill the gaps left by Bloom and Knightley in films one to three and Sam Claflin and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey in the last outing, newbies Thwaites and Scodelario feel fresh as leads. Good value too is Bardem, giving undue weight to a thankless roll in the tradition of Bill Nighy and Ian McShane. Of the returners, Geoffrey Rush looks knackered as an ageing buccaneer (only in part contextually), Bloom delivers a dire cameo which creaks more than the ship (his ‘I love you son’ has less emotional resonance than Vader’s ‘I am your father’) and Kevin McNally seems only a reluctant participant for the ride. As for Depp, it’s hard to be kind about a performance which is merely a poor impression of the character and utterly fails to nail the accent of before. There are times when Depp splutters lines more audibly matching his Mad Hatter from the Alice films than the once iconic Captain. He’s even outshone by Sir Paul McCartney who gives his all to turgid material in only the most brief of appearances.
When not too CGI dominated, some visuals it must be said to retain an aura of pleasure. The real problems are entirely within the script and its innumerable holes more depleted than Salazar’s decimated shipmates. Quite how Jack’s supposed to spend the entire film drunk despite running out of rum in the first half an hour is the least of the film’s woes. Those would be flat attempts at humour which are at best simply not funny (‘I’m an astronaut’/’Ah, she tends donkeys!’) and at worst are immaturely dated (‘No woman’s ever handled my Herschel’).
Salazar’s Revenge has its moments but momentary is literally all they are. No scene manages to entertain from start to finish without at some point losing the plot. For a grim two hours the editing is poor and the soundtrack half-hearted; worst of all, the whole endeavour is unforgivably dull.