Jack Sparrow is back (again!) in a satisfying, fan-servicing fifth swashbuckling pantomime.
In Pirates of the Caribbean lore, the captain of the Flying Dutchman (most recently Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner) is banished to the darkest ocean, allowed to return home only once every ten years. Ten years ago to the day, I watched At World’s End, Gore Verbinski’s muddled and overlong third instalment, in my local multiplex, and today – spoiler alert – I finally saw Will Turner reunited with his wife Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). Half my life I’ve been waiting (well, not really) for this couple to see each other again, and as Han Zimmer’s “One Day” theme soared as they meet on a cliff, a tear ran down my cheek. Because, no matter how stiff these actors in their respective roles, nor how cheesy beyond belief the set-up for the reunion is, witnessing the pay-off of a decade-long cinema cliffhanger that 9-year old me was invested in is undeniably an emotional moment.
Now that you’re caught up on my disproportionately positive reaction to the final 5 minutes of this film, let’s go back and analyse the first 120. The film, directed by Norwegian duo Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, picks up more or less where At World’s End left off, ignoring the intermediate action of 2011’s fun but frivolous On Stranger Tides. Jack Sparrow is back, and enters with typical bombast, emerging from a bank vault just as the entire bank is ripped from its foundations by Mr. Gibbs and the rest of Jack’s crew.
As I have grown weary of Johnny Depp’s shtick in recent years, his work on the Pirates films has maintained a place in my heart: Sparrow is such an outrageous caricature as to transcend the silliness I find so insufferable in other films. He truly is one of the most iconic 21st century cinema characters, and nobody can fault Depp for his dedication to the part. Of course, a Pirates film wouldn’t work with just one crazy clown, hence the return of Geoffrey Rush’s delightful Captain Barbossa, who — five films in — Rush is playing as Shakespearean fool.
Also in the mix is Javier Bardem’s villainous Salazar, a ghost with blood dripping from his mouth and a mass of distracting CGI hair that operates on a different frame rate to everything else on screen. Bardem is always fun in this sort of role, and his Salazar is possibly the most memorable Pirates villain to date.
As Will and Elizabeth’s son, Brenton Thwaites is marginally less dull than Sam Claflin’s heartthrob figure in Stranger Tides, though he still hasn’t proven himself a distinctive performer. Kaya Scodelario serves much better, more sympathetic than Knightley’s Elizabeth ever was, and handles a ‘Who’s Her Daddy?’ subplot reasonably well. As for the cameoing Paul McCartney… He sings. That’s about it.
There are few complaints to be issues about Rønning and Sandberg’s direction, which certainly feels more organic than Rob Marshall’s work on Stranger Tides, which followed a tiresome Establishing-Shot-Cut-To-Action formula that makes pressing the DVD’s Skip Chapter button a real chore. This pair clearly know how to film the sea, and return to the operatic visual scale of Verbinski’s trilogy. Composer Geoff Zanelli does a surprisingly good job, taking Hans Zimmer’s original themes and injecting them with some new life.
The screenplay, by Tower Heist’s Jeff Nathanson, has some profoundly weak moments: an over-reliance on blue humour (“She a horologist? No shame in that, my dear!”) and some of the clunkiest ever exposition in a franchise not exactly renowned for its subtlety.
Dead Men Tell No Tales sticks to the 2-hours-and-out that worked well for Stranger Tides, rather than the almost 3 hours of At World’s End. Rich in fan service moments (that totally satisfied my inner 9-year-old self) and never meandering for long enough to become outright dull, this is likely the most inoffensive fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film we could have asked for. In a landscape of comic-book heroes and wrestling robots, I’m glad there’s still a tentpole franchise (as cynically produced as Pirates may be) that feels as ‘traditionally Hollywood’ as these films continue to.