Pretend that your last memory of Captain Jack Sparrow is watching him sail away on The Black Pearl. That the last time you saw Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner they’d finally shared a big romantic kiss and pledged love for one another. Any of their future adventures remain a mystery to you, meaning you’re not bogged down by overstuffed plots which continually defy logic, run times which continually tax patience and CGI which continues to look too cheap for how much it cost to make. More importantly, you haven’t had 14 years of your love for Johnny Depp’s unhinged performance as Sparrow to turn to extreme annoyance if not outright hatred.
If all of that were true then Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales (or Salazar’s Revenge elsewhere in the world) might seem like a welcome return for a group of beloved (or at least well-liked) characters. But when a franchise has reached its fifth installment it’s a bit silly to try and pretend like the sequels never happened, that the good will hasn’t been worn away by years of diminishing returns. Yet that’s largely what Pirates 5 tries to do, acting as a soft reboot which can be understood equally by new and returning audiences.
I personally fall somewhere in-between the new and returning. After Black Pearl, I avoided all of the sequels due to toxic word of mouth, and only saw Dead Men this weekend because I had a couple of hours to kill. To those better versed in the franchise’s history Dead Men might seem like another retread adventure in which Depp makes a mockery of a once-great character and Disney again cynically pilfers the world’s wallet. To me, it was a surprisingly fun summer blockbuster delivering spectacle, heart, romance, a fantastic villain and, of course, a funny monkey. Sure, it resembles a mid-era Marvel Studios film in the way the plot is driven forward by a MacGuffin all the characters are chasing after before devolving into a third act orgy of CGI mayhem. Plus, many of its major plot points seem like re-workings of Curse of the Black Pearl. Still, the film is far better than it has any right to be.
The plot involves a son named Henry (Brenton Thwaites) looking to undo his father’s curse, an amateur astrologist/horologist named Carina (Maze Runner’s Kaya Scodelario) looking to use a diary and the stars to discover her father’s secret, a once-great pirate named Jack falling on hard times and slouching away from responsibility when his past comes back to literally haunt him and a prosperous pirate named Hector plotting to turn in an old friend to protect his empire.
That’s all you need to know with Pirates 5. That Henry is actually Will Turner’s son, Carina somehow connected to a long time franchise co-star, the down-on-his luck pirate the famous Jack Sparrow and the prosperous pirate Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) carries more meaning to those who know the franchise well, but it’s is also explained clearly enough in Jeff Nathanson‘s script that you need not know your Davy Jones from your Blackbeard to follow the plot.
Of course, plot is a key reason many objected to the various sequels, as in each of the sequels seemed to suffer from an overabundance of storylines. I’ve seen similar complaints leveled against Pirates 5, yet I found this film’s plot to be surprisingly streamlined, at least by modern blockbusters standards. A unique set of broadly funny circumstances brings our characters together, and through the unifying force of a common enemy (Javier Bardem’s fantastically played Salazar, who, like Rush in Black Pearl, captains a ship of the damned and has a troubled history with Sparrow) they have equal need of the MacGuffin (Poseidon’s Trident, which can break curses and deliver great treasures) but differing plans for what they’ll do with it once they find it (in general, the non-pirates lean selfless and the pirates lean selfish). Add in familiar franchise set pieces like Jack improbably surviving an execution attempt, Jack being marooned on an island and the heroes encountering scary gothic horror creatures (two words: zombie sharks!), an unnecessary cameo by a pop star (Paul McCartney) and you’ve got yourself a surprisingly coherent Pirates movie.
There’s a pull quote for the poster: “Pirates 5 – Surprisingly Coherent!” Yet it is meant as a compliment. Under Gore Verbinski and Rob Marshall’s stewardship, the Pirates movies gained a reputation for being astonishingly incoherent. New-to-the-franchise co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) were well aware of that when they took over and sought to return Pirates to its glory days when everyone begrudgingly liked Black Pearl and cheered when Depp received an Oscar nomination for his performance. So, they analyzed Black Pearl and pinpointed everything great about it which they wanted to put in their film. As Rønning told EW:
“It’s scary, it’s funny, and most of all it’s a comedy, but with great heart, and that structure and the dynamics between the characters was something I really wanted to try and reinvent. It’s basically a love story. It’s a period piece, yes, but about real people falling in love, with Jack Sparrow coming in every now and then crashing the party. But it’s important that, since Jack doesn’t really have a character arc, you as an audience have to really invest in the other characters.”
As such, Dead Men is carried by Henry and Carina. Their chemistry together as a potential romantic couple is no better than Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley’s, but their bantering is amusing and individual storylines suitably engaging. Scodelario’s Carina particularly entertains as a woman ahead of her time (e.g., her interest in science has led the men in power to label her a witch) whose annoyance with ignorance is humorously tested by being dropped on a boat with a bunch of pirates. Before that, Carina is nearly executed for witchcraft, and her ingeniously condescending speech to the idiot peasants gathered to see her hang is delivered for all its comic worth.
And that is something Dead Men has in spades – jokes. Broad comedy set pieces purposefully evoking silent film slapstick (e.g., Jack strapped to a rotating guillotine or Jack doing his best Buster Keaton while trapped in a runaway bank), bawdy humor (e.g., pirates have an understandably crude reaction to the word horologist) and Vaudeville routines (e.g., a literal shotgun wedding where a debate must be held without ever accidentally saying “I do”) abound.
But I suppose none of this particularly matters if you don’t like Depp’s Jack Sparrow. In fact, the thing about Jack many object to is the thing Dead Men’s directors love: that he doesn’t really have a character arc. After 14 years and 5 movies this means we have a character who is fundamentally incapable of change, and if Jack never changes then it’s just Depp getting paid $20m and back-end profits to again trot out his Keith Richards impression, which seems to get bigger and more cartoonish with each sequel (or so I gather).
I get that, and recognize my enjoyment of Dead Men is partially because this is only the second Jack Sparrow film I’ve ever seen. Dead Men does have an interesting flashback laying out Jack’s origin story, but even with it I recognize the film certainly could have done more with him, as THR argued:
In the early going, there’s a sense of a possible arc for Jack that could function as a meta-commentary on Depp’s career. Sparrow loses his pirate crew (including his longtime best friend Joshamee Gibbs) because he’s “lost his luck.” Thus, the film could have depicted Jack’s desire to get his mojo back. Instead, by the end, all is well again, without the sense that Jack’s mojo is back; instead, it just feels like his old crew has accepted that Jack will always be their captain, like it or not.
However, I didn’t go to see the continuing evolution (or lack thereof) of Jack Sparrow. I went for a perfectly diverting pirate movie with swashbuckling action, lighthearted humor, an easy-to-follow plot and the good sense to end after just 2 hours. That might seem like a low bar, but it is the toxic word of mouth surrounding the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise which has kept me away for so long. Dead Men, though, is so enjoyable I might just circle back to watch the other sequels. Are they really that bad? [The internet suddenly screams its answer back at me: “YES!]
THE BOTTOM LINE
Dead Men is a soft reboot of an oft-beleaguered franchise, clearly aiming to ape the 2003 original in tone, story construction and the proper placement of Jack Sparrow in the story, recasting him as the jokester co-star, not the center of attention (even though the power of his personality automatically pulls focus). It might not be good enough to win back those audiences who’ve turned on the franchise, but if you come to it with fresh eyes and a high tolerance for Depp’s Keith Richards impression you’ll find plenty to appreciate.