Captain Jack Sparrow searches for the trident of Poseidon.
It all started so splendidly. Gore Verbinski’s original “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” was an unexpected delight back in 2003, both to worldwide audiences and studio execs. It made over $650 million on a $140 million budget, putting behind bitter memories of pirate flops like Renny Harlin’s “Cutthroat Island.” “Curse” delivered all the requisite swashbuckling adventures, but its real appeal lay in Johnny Depp’s madcap, Keith-Richards-like pirate Jack Sparrow. Our heavily-mascara-d anti-hero with an ambiguous sexuality, a penchant for booze and the uncanny ability to continuously get away from certain death, thanks to his skills but mostly luck (read: Ex-Machina), said or did something surprising at every turn. Depp’s performance elevated a standard-albeit-entertaining yarn to “almost-classic” status. It certainly overshadowed the tepid romance between Orlando Bloom’s dull Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s one-note Elizabeth Swan.
But then came the sequels. “Dead Man’s Chest”’s plot was “Godzilla-in-a-wet-suit” bloated, while “At World’s End”’s almost-three-hour length induced seasickness. That didn’t seem to bother audiences, as budgets grew proportionally to box-office – even when Verbinski stepped off, focusing on cartoons (“Rango”) and cowboys (“The Lone Ranger”), and Rob Marshall, of “Chicago” fame, came on board. His slightly stripped-back “On Stranger Tides” was lukewarm, but big $$$ kept comin’ in.
Now, 14 years after Jack Sparrow first hiccuped drunkenly on silver screens, part five sails in, titled “Dead Men Tell No Tales” – and the intention’s clear: to bring back the spontaneity/magic of the original and keep the execs happy. With all the quality big-budget entertainment in theaters right now (“Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” “Alien: Covenant”), I’ll be surprised (if not necessarily shocked) if the film delivers on the latter (dammit, folks seem to dig them ghostly bootleggers!). As for the former, Norewegian directorial duo Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, known for their Oscar-nominated seafarer adventure “Kon-Tiki,” comes close but ultimately fails at rekindling the spark of Verbinski’s seminal flick.
They do have Javier Bardem’s evil Captain Salazar on their side. His heavily-CGI-d turn as the embittered pirate-hater, hell-bent on exacting revenge on Jack Sparrow after the young lad sunk his ship and turned him into a ghost ages ago, almost saves the film. Like its opening sequences – one involving a boy improbably surviving a deep-water dive, the other following Sparrow’s misguided robbery – the film is sorta entertaining but preposterous and unoriginal, trying oh-so-hard to replicate instead of innovating. Moments of true originality come rarely and hence stand out.
The plot in a nutshell: Abandoned after the aforementioned robbery by his crew, Sparrow gets joined by Will Turner’s son Henry (an instantly-forgettable Brenton Thwaites) and the determined Carina (Kaya Scodelario) on a quest to find Poseidon’s Trident. With Captain Barbossa (a returning, tired-looking Geoffrey Rush) helping Salazar hunt down Sparrow, as well as MacGuffins, such as a magical compass and a book with a glowing ruby on it, Sparrow runs into all the expected obstacles, resulting in (spoiler alert!) a massive ship battle and a tidy resolution, doors left wide open for another billion-dollar sequel.
I may make it seem dire, but I’m just tired of Hollywood milking cash cows. It’s not all bad. Scodelario, replacing Knightley, brings a dash of “feminine power” to her role, but it gets eclipsed by all the cleavage-gazing and sexual innuendo. There are some genuinely chuckle-inducing scenes, like when Sparrow, strapped to a sliding guillotine, spins in place over and over. Salazar’s gawping, snarling ship is an inspired creation. There are zombie sharks, if that’s your thing. Depp’s nonchalant way of reacting to certain death, as if he knows he will surely avoid it, is charming – though, almost 15 hours of Sparrow’s shtick does get a tad tiring. The intention to revisit the ad-libbing feel of the original is palpable. Oh, and we do get to see a “digi-young” Depp, which is always fun.
That said, let’s face it, the plot is rubbish. There is a surprisingly high count of quite gruesome, undeserved deaths-by-sword. Secondary characters are reduced to either stereotypes or forgettable plot devices. The script could have used another polish or two: “The memory of my father will not be befouled by the tongue of a pirate!” – come on, Jeff Nathanson, you wrote “Catch Me If You Can” (okay, you also wrote “Speed 2: Cruise Control”). The fifth, painfully unnecessary, installment of Disney’s “based-on-a-theme-park-ride” yarn proves that you can’t step in the same ocean twice… or in this case, five times.
In theaters Friday, May 26th