T.O.W.E.L Movie Review - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
A while ago I made a list of movies which rejuvenated their respective franchises, such as Fast Five, Batman Begins and Tangled. These installments defied general expectations and trends and turned out to be good, injecting new life and excitement into the prospect of more from whence it came from. At the end of that article, I expressed my wish that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Cars 3 would serve that exact purpose for both series in 2017.
Here's hoping Cars 3 makes it folks, cause Pirates 5 ain't done nothing but make me wish the series would finally be put to rest.
That's not me saying the movie is terrible, because a terrible movie in a beloved series (On Stranger Tides, Terminator: Genisys) usually make me yearn for another one to close it off, just so it doesn't end as disgracefully. I know, that makes me part of the problem. Let's break it down, so you might understand the sentiment.
Beware yee sailors, there be SPOILERS ahead!
Set 5 years after On Stranger Tides, Dead Men Tell No Tales sees a 21-year-old Henry Turner, son of Will and Elizabeth, on a quest to seek the lost Trident of Poseidon, in order to free his father from his cursed bond on the Flying Dutchman. And to that end, he is aided by an adventurous and scholarly woman, Carina, and, more unwittingly, good old Captain Jack Sparrow who, for some reason, is at the rock bottom of his career.
Unbeknownst to them all, Jack's involuntary attempt to "betray" his compass for booze has unleashed yet another undead crew captained by a vengeful Salazaar from his not-so-eternal trap in the Devil's Triangle, courtesy to a young Jack Sparrow in the first place.
So, to sum it up, Jack and his friends look for a mythical treasure while being threatened by an army of dead people. Now where have I seen that before?
There wouldn't be much of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie without Johnny Depp reprising his role as Captain Jack Sparrow. Regardless of your opinion on his acting ability or recent missteps, there is no denying that the sheer existence of this hall-of-fame instant classic character, not based on literature, comic book or any established material, but purely born out of (then) risky and unconventional acting, is a thing of wonder. His initial appearance in the first movie was, hands down, one of the greatest introduction scenes ever created, without a single line of dialogue too.
Dead Men Tell No Tales made a conscious attempt to bring back that original magic gradually lost throughout the years, to the point that they gave Jack the same basic premise as the first time we met him: a down-on-his-luck captain struggling to regain his former glory at the bottom of a bottle. And BLIMEY this is a historical low point for our favorite pirate, financially and emotionally. Hence we witnessed the most interesting and unthinkable scene of the movie: Jack traded the compass that guided him through all his adventures for a lousy bottle of rum, signifying a moment of defeat and ultimate surrender, even though he quickly recovered from it.
It was a powerful scene with tons of potential, but wasn't fully realized. Here's the thing about Jack Sparrow. He was always a dick, a scoundrel, a clown, a comic relief, a drunk and totally off his rockers, but beyond all that, he was also a fearsome pirate, a kickass swashbuckler, a cunning tactician and one hell of a captain. But here, he was rarely presented as anything from the latter category, instead mostly rendered as a slapstick comedian relying on luck. Half the personality, half the charm.
What initially seemed to be the beginning of an uprising arc lasted for the whole movie. Gone is the guy who can always find some tricks up his sleeves to get away with any sticky situation, and inserting the undignified buffoon relying on pure luck.There are times when we see the familiar character doing his thing, then there are others when he's become a parody of his former self.
It's almost standard procedure that Jack always has to ride along on someone else's romance (let's try not to mention the last movie), and this time the seats are filled by a Henry Turner, hellbent on breaking his father's curse; and Carina Smyth, an astronomer and horologist (get it?) way too smart for her own good. The plot really doesn't require them to fall in love, not that you should have to pinpoint a reason for love, but on a positive note, they aren't just here to fall in love.
Henry is on a mission to save his father and reunite his parents, both characters we know, love and miss, therefore it is a motivation with which audiences can easily relate. Carina is a well-portrayed and likable character, also on a mission to rediscover her own lost father. At times it may feel like the movie is overexerting itself to hammer down these few points simply because there's nothing else to base her character upon, hence the initially funny but overused "witch" joke. In the end, even though their romance isn't the most necessary ingredient, they are effective characters in their own right.
Back once again is fan favorite Captain Barbossa, masterfully portrayed as always by Geoffrey Rush, who has become very wealthy and powerful since he took over Blackbeard's franchise. While at first glance he didn't really belong in the story, being stuck between Salazaar's and Jack's personal matters, but his status quickly elevated upon the revelation that he was, gasp, Carina's father, which shed light on some aspects of this character we've never seen. The new found relationship also brought out some heavy emotions towards the end, gave Barbossa a satisfying conclusion to his arc (even though we didn't realize it's an arc until five minutes ago).
One of the most highly-anticipated element of this probably not-so-highly-anticipated movie, is Javier Bardem playing the villain. Captain Salazaar has all the making of a great villain. A talented actor with a shining track record of villain portrayal, some stylish look, sound and mannerism, extremely cool special effects on his hair, which remains afoat as if in water even on dry land. So....the curse gave him flowing hair? You know, curses in movies don't make sense. "I am placed under the curse of immortality." Wow! Sucks to be you. #Sarcasm
He is, well, okay in the movie. Certainly more memorable than Blackbeard but not on the level of evil Barbossa or Davy Jones. Despite a neat backstory, the character really could use an effective "villain moment" that sets up the fear we ideally should have for our heroes. For Barbossa, it was the skeleton crew scene that revealed their supernatural nature. For Jones, his entrance scene showcasing his deadliness and unique smoking technique. Something akin Bardem's own beautiful monologue scene that served to introduce his character in Skyfall. To further draw on the Bond parallel, Salazaar is like Christoph Waltz in Spectre, a good actor doing his business, but doesn't get enough assists from the writing department. But hey, at least he seems to be having fun.
Returning from previous movies are the loyal first mate Joshame Gibbs, Marty the dwarf pirate, Scrum from On Stranger Tides as well as Mullroy and Murtogg once again as a duo of comic relief, proving once again that you can never go wrong with the tried and tested, no sign of Pintel and Ragetti though. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley weren't as involved as the trailers would have you believe, but they did have their story closed in a tasteful and fulfilling manner. Paul McCartney's cameo is just stupid. The movie also introduced another witch, a real one, whose sole purpose seems to be pointing people to where the plot requires them to be, essentially could be replaced by a dot on the chart.
As always can be expected from Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the set pieces in Dead Men Tell No Tales is astonishing and thoroughly believable. Despite apprently most of the staff in most working departments being replaced, the visual style, which is very unique among today's blockbusters, is faithfully recaptured.
One thing that has been unanimously praised is the score, which is no surprise because it reuses many recurring themes composed by, i.a., Hans Zimmer in all previous movies. Being Zimmer's protégé and having worked on all prior Pirates mvoies, the new composer Geoff Zanelli knows exactly which motif from which previous segment to draw, in order to best bring out the desired emotions. Half among the OST's 18 tracks contain reused clips, and who can fault that? Pirates soundtrack has built a legacy arguably even more widespread than the billion-dollar movies. Admittedly I do not recall any original music (which isn't saying much since I've only heard them once), but boy did the Flying Dutchman theme catch my inner child off-guard.
Action scenes, like its humor, can be hit and miss in this movie, and by which I do mean an extreme hit or a thorough miss. The bank robbing scene brought out adventurous joy that exceeded the entire 4th movie and ranks right at the top among franchise's finest, the flashback scene was also handled spectacularly with stunning de-ageing effect on Depp, but on the other end, the finale was dark, confusing and mostly disappointing.
Maybe I'd be asking too much, but my version of finale battle would culminate in a three-on-one navy warfare with the Black Pearl, the Flying Dutchman and Queen Anne's Revenge teaming up against Salazaar who's wielding the awesome power of the Trident. That would be quite a sight to see. Perhaps the concern is it would too similar to the finale of At World's End, and that movie cost $300 million.
While most of the aforementioned elements can be summed up as hit-and-miss, the "misses" can mostly be attributed to a very safe and weak script. Not one part of the narrative feels like a story six years in the making. The dialogue, in particular, is very unexceptional and a far cry from the snarky, witty remarks that we were accustomed to with Pirates movies. It's frankly amazing that Depp was able to make half of the jokes funny.
At this point, we could almost make a generator for Pirates of the Caribbean plot. Hell, let's make one! You need Jack Sparrow, a young couple from distinctly different backgrounds but managed to find true love, a supernatural antagonist leading an undead crew while harbouring a personal grudge against Jack, Barbossa somewhere in the mix playing against every party imaginable, a mythical McGuffin to find and some curse that wants breaking. Hire me, Disney!
The story of Dead Men Tell No Tales may have followed the formula a bit too closely, but it's an effective formula, just rough around the edges when it comes to details. How about that awkward title transition with Salazaar uttering the phrase "dead men tell no tales" as if he knew it were a prologue sequence? What about the Trident riddle, which akin to the mishandling of the Fountain of Youth, robbed the artifact of all divinity and expectations? Why is the situation never, at any point, made to feel perilous, or any protagonists vulnerable?
And why oh why for a movie that pays loving tributes to previous adventures, as well as on a mission to tie up loose ends and close unfinished arcs, it frequently feels like the filmmakers should've seen the first four movies just a few more times? Which brings me to the next segment. [what a smooth transition, patting myself on the back here, just remember to delete before publishing]
Okay now....deep breath...heart rate normal...blood pressure in control...can't say the same thing about body fat percentage though. Here we go.
So the entire plot hangs on to the idea that Jack gave up his compass, which apparently served as a link to Salazaar's entrapment in the Devil's Triangle. Jack used the compass for the first time to defeat Salazaar many years ago, after which he became Captain of the Black Pearl and received his first tributes from the crew, consisting of his now made-famous hat and other head decorations. Now, where shall we begin?
First of all, this directly contradicts the previous notion that Jack got his compass from Tia Dalma, aka Calypso, and given that the compass serves a big part in the narrative, did nobody out of the thousands of people working on the movie notice this huge inconsistency? And hasn't he given away or lost the compass multiple times? Didn't Davy Jones raise the Black Pearl for Jack in a 13 year pact? Wasn't that what the 2nd movie was all about? And if Jack's choice of fashion is an amalgamation of his first tributes, how come his father and uncle all dress up like him?
And why would using the compass to trap Salazaar make this object the primary seal of the curse anyway? Why not the Pearl, or Jack himself? How does Salazaar even know the kid who outsmarted him, who was a nobody at the time, would be known as Jack Sparrow? How did he even recognize Jack from the poster since he looked and dressed nothing like that when they met? How does he know of the compass and giving it up would break the curse? Jack even died once between these films and it didn't count? Why was there a curse to begin with, and even if so, was Salazaar seriously the first ship in history to be trapped in there? And if not, why start with him?
Speaking of curse breaking, since the "division" of the Trident supposedly broke all curses on the sea, there are questions to be asked. Why would Will have algae on his face since Davy Jones and his crew only mutated with seafood after Jones unsubscribed his job description of caring for perished souls on the sea, so did Will just suck at the job? Even so, since his heart is locked up in a chest on the island with Elizabeth, does that technically count as a curse on the sea? If he were freed from the curse, wouldn't he instantly die due to a little cardiac inconvenience otherwise known as missing a freakin' heart?
Does the breaking of all curses also apply to a certain chest of cursed Aztec gold coins unclaimed on a certain island? Again, are island curses listed as "sea" or "land"? The curses that forbid Jones and Salazaar on land certainly don't exclude small islands. What about the monkey? I guess it could die now?
Please note that I do not condone taking the lore of Pirates of the Caribbean as seriously. I'm only doing it because I am already certifiably insane. There is yet hope for you.
Could there be a sixth or even more Pirates movies? More importantly, should there be? Dead Men Tell No Tales doesn't seem to have that answer. It did a neat job tying up loose ends, with the Turner family reunited and free of all curses, Carina carrying on the legacy of Barbossa and Jack sailing the Black Pearl into the horizon for more mid-life crisis adventures. It certainly can be seen as conclusive but at the same time doesn't preclude a potential follow-up. In other words, Disney wanted to test the remaining value of the Pirates franchise, and that of Johnny Depp, for good reason too.
Depp simply isn't the box office powerhouse he was when On Stranger Tides came out in 2011. Since then, he has recorded multiple duds and personal new lows both in terms of financial returns and acting (Mortdecait, anybody?), most notably The Lone Ranger and Alice Through the Looking Glass, both Depp-headed Disney features that bombed hard enough for even the biggest family entertainment manufacturer to frown on the ledger. However, his run is far from over, being already contracted for some of the potentially dominating franchises in near future, cases in point, the Fantastic Beast sequels (playing Grindelwald) and Universal's Dark Universe (playing the Invisible Man).
The prospect of another Pirates movie seems entirely dependent upon the commercial performance of this particular one, and as of me writing this article, its domestic box office is underwhelming, but has raked in flourishing numbers internationally, especially China. In my experience, the movie should end up being mildly profitable. But given the immense budget associated with Pirates movies, it may not be worth the risk to further temper with the already in-force diminishing effect.
More importantly, at least to us innocent audiences at the mercy of evil filmmaking corporations, do we want to see Captain Jack Sparrow at it again? Well, there is no definitive way to answer that. On the positive side, yes, even at his lowest point, Jack Sparrow is still entertaining to watch. These Pirates movies tend to have humongous production scale and cycle, so in the event that further movies are greenlit, they would at least be three years apart, which should help alleviate oversaturation. Depp isn't getting any younger, and there absolutely can be no Pirates of the Caribbean without Johnny Depp.
On the other hand, the series is as fatigued as it is. Even with a six year gap and vastly improved from the previous entry, Dead Men Tell No Tales feels far from fresh, or exciting in general. Also, the sooner Depp could ditch the Jack Sparrow act, which has been defining his acting instead of the other healthier way around, the sooner this amazing actor might finally have the chance to climb other mountains.
The biggest hint of a sequel is, naturally, the after-credits scene which sees Davy Jones returning to haunt the Turners. But ultimately it doesn't mean anything. The after-credits scene of On Stranger Tides is left unresolved, thankfully. The dog becoming chief of the Pelogostos tribe does not mean it's getting its own spin-off. Sometimes a post-credits scene is nothing more than a scene shown after credits. How many people would want to see Pirates 2&3 remade anyway?
Maybe the franchise truly has no more life in it, in which case, best let dead men tell no tales.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is an acceptable effort to put the series back on track, although it achieves that by religiously steering clear of any uncharted waters, which is the opposite of what made the franchise great back when. While at times it can be exciting, fun and emotional, at others it is difficult to care, or even stay awake for that matter.
Despite solid performances, the characters, especially Jack Sparrow, are very much shackled by uninspiring writing. The movie pays loving homage to previous events, but also directly contradict and further confuse the lore. It seems for everything it does right, the movie follows it up with missed opportunities or flat out duds. It's your typical middle-of-the-road run-of-the-mill okay kind of movie. Probably won't remember it in a few months.
Final score: 5.5/10
- It's adorable that Henry would spend a good decade trying to free his father from the Dutchman, even though they may have spent something like one day together. Come to think of it, Will never knew his father either, but vowed to do the same thing for him. Does it run in the family?
- Why didn't Henry bring Elizabeth along on this quest to free her beloved? Does he not know she's a certifiable badass? Are you telling me that she's been sitting on that island with a buried chest all this time? Doesn't a girl get bored?
- If Barbossa had taken over Blackbeard's operation, he should have more than a fleet to command. Let's not forget the guy had a vast collection of bottled ships and if Barbossa had freed all of them, Salazaar's ship shouldn't be more than a minor nuissance.
- I can't be the only one wondering what happened to Cotton and his parrot, am I? Okay maybe I am.
- If indeed they make another film, might as well bring back Zoe Saldana. In case you never realized, she was the girl pirate to whom Jack owed a ship in the first movie.
- Seems there's been some improvement in the quality of jail bars. Can't pry'em off with a piece of rotten wood any more.
- Bardem describes his facial make-up as having "cold chicken breasts" glued to his face. I wonder how he knew what that feels like to begin with.
- I bet Van Diesel and his crew switched the stolen safe somewhere under the bridge and left Jack with an empty one.
- Come to think of it, Barbossa captained the Black Pearl way longer than Jack ever did.
- Pirates really have it hard, between Salazaar, Kraken and the East India Company, they are threatened to be extinct every few years. The hell was that Pirates Brethren Court doing when Salazaar was at his prime? Was it because nobody started singing?