David G. Hughes on Joachim Rønning’s & Espen Sandberg’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge’ (2017)
Following the (Oscar nominated) success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) a whole fourteen years ago, Disney’s Pirates franchise soon became archetypal of everything wrong with contemporary Hollywood. We got rather boring, zero-idea films – a bloated sequel, a muggy and convoluted third feature and a terribly inconsequential fourth film. Thinking back, it’s difficult to differentiate between the films or even remember anything besides a tentacle beard, killer mermaids, a Kraken and Chow Yun-fat in a Fu Manchu moustache. It seems this franchise had truly sailed towards yonder and all sense of navigational direction of where to go next had been lost to the oceanic chasm. Luckily for Disney, Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Dead Men Tell No Tales) re-surfaces some of the original films joyful creativity and humour to make it a seaworthy, somewhat unnecessary, but ultimately satisfying conclusion to the Jack Sparrow tale.
You’d be hard-pressed not to feel rapturous glee at hearing the now iconic theme tune chime to the sight of sailing ships and acrobatic adventure spectacle. These moments of physical comedy, visual marvel and fast-passed action are what you pay the ticket price for and it’s what you remember once leaving the theatre. Unfortunately, between undead hammerhead sharks and canon parkour, the film sails into quagmires of uninteresting faux-mythological plot involving multiple Captains and a supremely tedious romance between Orlando and Keira surrogates, played by someone called Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario. Henry Turner, son of Will, is a go-getter naval boy who believes in the myths and legends of the sea, whilst Carina is a stubborn independent astronomer whose character arc seems to solely consist of admitting that she was wrong and the man was right in the myth vs. science debate.
But let’s talk about Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), the one thing in these films that has made an enduring mark on popular culture. Considering the Pirates franchise is essentially a family adventure series, how strange that the hero of the film, one known and beloved, is a rampant alcoholic. While Jack has always had a penchant for the occasional swig of rum, in Salazar’s Revenge he seems to have tipped into a distasteful full-blown dependency. In light of reports of Depp’s on-set drunkenness, one gets the feeling that such antics may have crossed over into his performance. Still, Depp has managed to perform an impressive feat in his creation of Sparrow—a counter-culture rock star masquerading as a children’s entertainer (a summary for Depp’s career?), it is common knowledge that Depp based his performance on friend Keith Richards, and the fact that he has turned a scallywag that encourages you to break the rules into a pop-culture hero for the Walt Disney crowd is undeniably impressive. As Steve Jobs once said, “It’s better to be a pirate than to join the navy.”
Having just as much fun as Johnny is Javier Bardem in a delectably sinister performance as Capitán Salazar, a Spanish naval commander with a hatred of pirates, wronged by Sparrow in life and seeking revenge in the afterlife. A mix between the repulsive ooze of Danny DeVito’s Penguin from Batman Returns (1992) and the floaty ghosts from Crimson Peak (2015), Salazar makes for a rather memorable villain. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for any of the the new characters or the films silly plot about trying to find the Trident of Poseidon for some nonsensical reason. The films have always suffered from an over reliance on multi-stranded plot over character, which inevitably leads to sagging middle areas, and this latest is little different. While we do get to see how Jack became Captain in a flashback origin sequence (assisted by digital de-ageing), it seems showing where Jack got his hat, quirky beads and Sparrow name is considered a bountiful gift and fascinating character insight in this franchise. It’s not.
Unlike every Hollywood film released at the moment, Salazar’s Revenge can be commended for having a strong degree of closure to its conclusion, a pretty bow that ties everything together, including strands left over from previous films. One wonders if the franchise has finally decided to abandon ship rather than be forced to go down with it. Fact is, Depp is getting older, his career has come across some choppy waters, and the question remains: how many more times can you use a Captain villain burdened with a supernatural curse before things start to get more hackneyed than they already are?
Far from perfect, Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge does not so much resuscitate a drowning franchise as much as give it a respectable last hurrah. This is a finely entertaining roller-coaster adventure that showcases building surfing, lots of ships emerging from underwater, some funny gags and, once again, that music. Now, show me that horizon where this franchise need not exist.