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Dead Men Tell No Better Tales

          I’ve always had a soft spot for the Pirates of the Caribbean films. The Curse of the Black Pearl was a brilliantly clever, funny, and exciting adventure that’s easily the best swashbuckler movie since the days of Errol Flynn. The second and third films were typically bad sequels, but still enjoyable guilty pleasures. And the fourth was okay, but not very engaging or memorable. However with each film in this series, you’re guaranteed some creativity in the world, characters, action, and visuals, that are worth something, even if the plots are convoluted and drawn out. Dead Men Tell No Tales is coming six years after On Stranger Tides, and is the first in the series not to be written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Does this signal a return to form for this series or spell its ultimate doom?
          The cursed ghost of a Spanish naval captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) has been freed from captivity in the Devil’s Triangle along with his crew, and seeks revenge on Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who as a young man tricked him into the doom of his crew. Jack meanwhile, after a botched bank robbery, is found by Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of his former friend Will (Orlando Bloom) now the cursed Captain of the Flying Dutchman. The two team up with an astronomer Carina (Kaya Scodelario) who can guide them by the stars to the legendary Trident of Poseidon, which can both break Salazar’s curse and that of Henry’s father. Also brought into the conflict is the rich pirate lord Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), whom Salazar ropes into helping him.
          If the story sounds convoluted, it is, but much less so than the last few films in this franchise. This movie is the shortest in the series, and clearly has more of a direction, helmed by Norwegian filmmakers Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. It’s also a lot closer to Curse of the Black Pearl, still the undisputed champion of this franchise, in regards to the cursed-pirate-crew-trying-to-be-cured plot, and the personalities of the two new characters. This movie also explores a little more the backstory of Jack Sparrow as we see him as a young man besting Salazar. 
          With these improvements though there’s one major element that makes this movie fall apart, and that’s Jack Sparrow. He is awful! While the character has always been silly and eccentric, there is a suaveness to him that made him so endearing and entertaining in that first film. In this movie, despite being billed as the main character, he’s really just the comic relief. His stakes in this plot are relatively low, he’s just along for the ride. Not once does he appear genuinely invested in anything and almost all of his scenes are built around jokes. And for the most part, they’re very bad jokes too. Humour that seems really simple and juvenile, like misunderstanding what a Horologist is purely for an innuendo. He’s still a large part of the movie, but the fact he’s not being taken remotely seriously is irritating and disrespectful to a character who even in the worst of these films has had some dignity. I don’t entirely blame Johnny Depp for this, I think it does lie in the absence of Elliott and Rossio’s writing, but he certainly doesn’t do the part any favours with his typical mugging and self-parody. Bardem plays his part decently, but apart from Salazar’s history with Jack which isn’t nearly explored enough, he makes for a dull villain. Thwaites and Scodelario are fine but their romantic chemistry is lacking and doesn’t feel as believable as their predecessors’. Henry Turner is fairly one-note but Carina’s actually quite fascinating. There’s an interesting reveal about her, and her rational, scientific mind is refreshing. Kevin McNally is back and as always is pretty good. David Wenham I’m glad to see in this, and Stephen Graham. Orlando Bloom is milking his early career for relevance as of late, but he’s not bad. The only great performance in the movie though is Geoffrey Rush. Rush and his character have been a highlight of all these films; a wickedly fun and perfectly over-the-top pirate villain turned anti-hero, and in this movie he’s given a great character arc that Rush plays terrifically, easily being the best part of the story.
          There are a few annoying continuity errors in this movie; particularly the passage of around twenty years between this film and At World’s End ten years ago. No one’s seemed to age nearly that much, and the catalyst for Henry’s journey being Will’s condition, seems to contradict the ending of that film. Not to mention all the films have plot cues that suggest they take place in relatively short proximity to one another. There were also one or two points left open from On Stranger Tides that are never addressed.
          But on the positive side, the visuals in this movie are fairly good as the Pirates films have been generally known for. The ghosts (and even the stupid ghost sharks) look intimidating, the actions scenes are well-choreographed and a few, particularly in the first great set-piece, are very creative -like Jack being trapped in a rotating guillotine. The de-ageing effect is present in the flashback scene and unlike in Guardians 2 it’s really good, possibly due to the fact Johnny Depp isn’t required to talk much. The atmosphere of the history and the open-seas adventure is still there, making the film’s ultimate quality all the more disappointing.
          I love Barbossa and his story, I love the promise in the Carina character, and I love a bunch of the little things, but Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is not the return to form it was trying to be. In fact even if the last few films haven’t been that good, I feel this entry really did lose something with Elliott and Rossio. A lot of good ideas not fully realized, noticeable continuity errors, and poor comedy would have been a lot more tolerable if the franchise lead character was on his game. But the poor handling of Jack really does sink this ship, to the point I’m hoping for a sequel, if only to send-off his character and this franchise on a stronger note.

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